Western countries have been quick to condemn Russia and offer their support for the besieged Ukraine. Canada’s parliament buildings flew the Ukrainian flag last Tuesday and President Barack Obama said in a statement “there will costs for any military intervention in Ukraine.”
Yet this apparent snap back to Cold War power playing has not produced the retaliation of seemingly omnipotent blocs like NATO or the EU. — and nor should it. Moscow’s behaviour and violation of Ukrainian sovereignty is a slap in the face to international agreements, but Russia will not back down.
Ukraine was by far the most important component of the USSR. From its fertile soils, Ukraine produced nearly four times the output of the next-ranking republic, providing meat, grain, milk and vegetables. The Chernobyl nuclear plant, which epitomized the corrupt and inept Soviet bureaucracy when it exploded in 1986, was located in Ukraine. Sevastopol, a heroic fortress city in which Russia held out from conquering European armies in 1854 and Nazi Germany’s Wehrmacht in 1941, is located in Crimea, along with the Russian Black Sea fleet.
For Ukraine to distance itself from the Russian Federation would be a move Putin could not countenance. Not only is the Russian Black Fleet berth in Ukraine, spread across the Crimean region, but losing Ukraine to the EU, would be a severe blow to Russian economic and security concerns. Especially since, as evidenced by the actions of Lithuania and Poland, the pattern is to ditch Russia, cozy up to the EU and join NATO.
Right now, the chips are stacked in Putin’s favour. Russian forces have occupied and effectively conquered the Crimea; a region populated with ethnic Russians and which has distanced itself from the pro-European protests in Kiev.
Russian armed forces are there under the pretext of protecting ethnic Russians. This ploy has been used by many countries, including the United States when it invaded Grenada in 1983 citing the need to protect U.S. medical students studying in the Caribbean island.
Monetary and diplomatic sanctions will not be effective now that Russia has committed thousands of troops and riled up public opinion with the need to protect “countrymen”.
Russia is not Iran or North Korea, countries which slide between economic stagnation and collapse with alarming regularity. Nor is Russia new to being a pariah in the international community. It has routinely turned aside condemnations and pleas for cooperation whether in regard to Russia’s treatment of homosexuality or obstinance towards an intervention in Syria.
In fact, a diplomatic “off-ramp”, which is in the works, seems to be the only reasonable and effective solution. If international observers can be placed to monitor and ensure the protection of ethnic Russians, then armed forces could withdraw without losing face and with the perception that they have achieved their goal.
The effect on Ukrainian-Russian-European economic and political ties, the contentious issue that sparked this conflict, will not be solved through international observers and will need revisiting. However, any decision which results in dialling back the risk of military action is acceptable right now.
Unfortunately it is a common tactic by countries to play on or even exacerbate ethnic divides in order to achieve geo-political goals. The goal now should be avoiding bloodshed, even at the price of Ukrainian sovereignty or international law.