It’s unlikely that Vladimir Putin will reverse Russia’s incursion into Ukraine without significant international pressure. The Ukrainian peninsula Crimea is strategically significant to Russia as it houses Russia’s only warm water naval base. The Crimea is also important to Russia from an ethno-cultural standpoint. More than half of the Crimea’s population is ethnically Russian. In fact, the Crimea was part of Russia until 1954, when Soviet Premier Khrushchev decided to gift it to Ukraine in a show of Slavic unity.
More importantly, rivers of Russian blood have been spilled in the Crimea. Russia has fought the Tatars, Ottomans, British, French, Sardinians, and Germans over the Crimea, largely due to its strategic importance mentioned above.
Ukraine as a whole is valuable to the Russians. In fact, Kiev was the original economic, political and cultural center of Russia. Most of Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire until the Russian Revolution. After a brief period of independence, Ukraine was absorbed into the Soviet Union.
Thus, many Russians see Ukraine as not just part of Russia, but their ancestral homeland. They view Ukrainian nationalism the same way that many Americans view Southern nationalism. To them, the Ukrainians are just Russians who refuse to admit it.
There is good reason to think that Putin will use military action if the West does nothing to help Ukraine. After all, Putin invaded Georgia in 2008 when the stakes were not as high as they are now. Russian troops are already occupying key parts of the Crimea.
Russia has tried to justify its intervention by comparing it to NATO intervention in Kosovo. However, the military intervention in Kosovo happened after thousands of innocent people were slaughtered and the international community overwhelmingly sanctioned action. If ethnic Russians were being systematically massacred in the Crimea, Russia would have every right to intervene. However, this is clearly not the case.
Russia has argued that ousted President Viktor Yanukovych is still Ukraine’s legitimate leader and that Neo-Nazis run the new government. However, an anti-fascist organization has estimated that only 30 percent of the Euromaidan protesters that rocked central Kiev are nationalists of any kind. More importantly, the claims that the protesters of the new government are Nazis are dubious since they originate from the recently deposed government. Incidentally, this same government told riot police that the protesters were Jews.
Yakunovych is not Ukraine’s legitimate leader. He was not overthrown by a coup or armed rebellion. Ukraine’s parliament voted 328-0 to impeach him.
Thus, the United States and Europe must stop Putin from taking Ukraine. If Putin is not stopped now, there will be no stopping him later.
During the 1930s, the Allies let Hitler take Austria and Czechoslovakia in an attempt to appease him. They realized too late that nothing would satisfy Hitler’s appetite, and appeasement only emboldened him.
Like Hitler, it is unlikely that Putin will be satisfied with the Crimea. Russia suffered greatly during World War II. After the war, Russia said “never again!” and sought to create buffer states so that the next war would not be on Russian soil (this is what the Eastern Bloc was). With the fall of Communism, Russia has lost those buffer states. Thus, Putin’s expansionism is partly motivated by a desire to reestablish the buffers.
Furthermore, Ukraine looks to become increasingly allied with NATO. Letting Putin take any part of Ukraine would be an abandonment that would not only embolden Putin, but also convince other American and European allies that the Western alliance structure cannot keep its promises.
Unfortunately, there are limited options. The EU is heavily dependent on Russian oil and gas – Russia supplies one third of Europe’s oil and gas. Thus, finding alternatives to fossil fuel is paramount to gaining bargaining advantage vis-à-vis Russia. Germany should reverse its decision to eliminate nuclear power and the EU should accelerate its renewable energy goals.
Long-term strategic adjustments in energy are necessary, but in the short-term there is much more that can be done. The EU and US should freeze Russian assets, restrict Russian access to Western banks, and ban visas to Russian citizens. Since Russia is greatly tied to the global economy and the West in particular, this would take a serious toll on Russia’s economy.
Moreover, the West should pressure other countries to do the same. Since the EU and US have much more leverage in the global economy than Russia, and since even Russia’s closest allies disapprove of the invasion, this shouldn’t be too difficult.
The West should also give military aid to Ukraine. The Russians have a serious numerical and qualitative advantage over the Ukrainian military. Ukraine is outnumbered roughly eight to one and its weapons have not advanced much since the end of the Cold War.
In short, another cold war is brewing. The Western alliance structure must face the Russian threat in Ukraine. As Churchill would say, Putin’s expansionist ambitions must be strangled in the cradle.