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Finding a Way Back From the Brink in Ukraine

Ukraine Protests

Ukrainians won an important political battle by ousting the corrupt Viktor Yanukovich as president. But replacing Yanukovich with another dubious politico will change little.

Washington also triumphed. Without doing much—no troops, no money, few words—Americans watched protesters frustrate Russia’s Vladimir Putin. 

But now Russia is attempting to win as well, intervening in Crimea.  Moscow has created a tinderbox ready to burst into flames.  The only certainty is that the U.S. should avoid being drawn into a war with Russia. 

The Ukrainian people have suffered much throughout history.  Independence came two decades ago, but the nation’s politics remain tempestuous.  In 2010 Yanukovich triumphed in a poll considered to be fair if not entirely clean.

His corrupt proclivities surprised no one.  However, while tarred as pro-Russian, in accepting Putin’s largess last November Yanukovich actually refused to sign the Moscow-led Customs Union.

Still, protesters filled Maidan Square in Kiev over Yanukovich’s rejection of a trade agreement with the European Union.  The issue, in contrast to Kiev’s later brutal treatment of protesters, had nothing to do with democracy or human rights.  As such, it was not America’s business, but up to the Ukrainian people acting through their elected government.

And Ukraine is divided. Broadly speaking, the nation’s west is nationalist and leans European while the east is Russo-friendly.  Kiev falls within opposition territory, so anti-government protesters rally easily.

Demonstrations quickly turned into a de facto putsch or street revolution.  Yanukovich’s ouster was a gain for Ukraine, at least if its people prove able to create a more liberal political order.  However, the price paid may be high.  Similar street violence could be deployed against better elected leaders in the future.

Indeed, many of those who look east and voted for Yanukovich feel cheated.  There was no fascist coup, but the government they helped elect was violently overthrown.  Some of them prefer to shift their allegiance to Russia.  These sentiments appear to be strongest in the Crimea, until 1954 part of Russia.

Kiev should engage disenfranchised Yanukovich backers.  Kiev also should reassure Moscow that Ukraine will not join any anti-Russian bloc, including NATO.  But if Crimeans, in particular, want to return to Russia, they should be able to do so. 

There is no important let alone vital security issue at stake for the U.S. in the specific choices Ukrainians make.  The violent protests against the Yanukovich government demonstrate that Moscow has no hope of dominating the country.  Kiev will be independent and almost certainly will look west economically.  The only question is how much of Ukraine.

That also doesn’t matter much to America, but the EU and Russia could still play the new Great Game. Unfortunately, rather than play Vladimir Putin has upended the board by taking effective control of the Crimea. 

Yet Putin tossed aside his trump card, a planned referendum by Crimea’s residents.  A majority secession vote would have allowed him to claim the moral high ground.  However, an election conducted under foreign occupation lacks credibility.

As it stands Russia has committed acts of aggression and war. 

Even in the worst case the U.S. has no cause for military intervention.  Who controls the Crimea ain’t worth a possible nuclear confrontation.

Putin is a nasty guy, but Great Power wannabe Russia is no ideologically-driven superpower Soviet Union. Moscow perceives its vital interests as securing regional security, not winning global domination. 

The only thing worse than a completely unnecessary conflict would be a completely unnecessary conflict involving America—especially with a nuclear-armed power.  Yet bringing Ukraine into NATO would have created a formal legal commitment to start World War III.

The allies should develop an out for Russia.  For instance, Moscow withdraws its forces while Kiev schedules independence referendums in Russian-leaning areas. 

If Putin refuses to draw back, Washington and Brussels have little choice but to retaliate. Secretary of State John Kerry promised “to go to the hilt in order to isolate Russia.”  The allies could impose a range of sanctions, though most steps, other than excluding Russian banks from international finance, wouldn't have much impact. 

Tougher would be banning investment and trade, though the Europeans are unlikely to stop purchasing natural gas from Moscow.  The other problem with retaliation is that the tougher the response the more likely Moscow would harm American interests elsewhere, including in Afghanistan, Iran, and Korea. 

The Ukrainian people deserve prosperity, stability, liberty, and democracy.  But that future is not within Washington’s power to bestow. Today the U.S. should concentrate on pulling Russia back from the brink in Ukraine. 

A new cold war is in no one’s interest.  A hot war would be a global catastrophe.

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Crimea

In 1776 England's thirteen American colonies declared their independence. In 1783 United States independence was ratified at the Treaty of Paris. The original thirteen colonies were now recognized by the American people and the international order as the United States of America.

In 1783 the peninsula of Crimea was peacefully annexed by Catherine the Great into the Russian empire. This was achieved without war. From that year until the Nazi invasion and occupation of 1941-44 and then more recently when the new boundaries of Ukraine were ratified by treaty in 1991, these lands never passed from Russian hands.

This explains why the overwhelming population of Crimea is Russian and why their allegiances and cultural ties remain with Russia.

Great powers always redraw political boundaries at the end of wars and always get it wrong. The lingering pernicious effects of these profound errors play out for decades.

The Russian people would no more think of severing Crimea from the Russian homeland than Americans would think of severing New Hampshire from our homeland. Both "states" were incorporated into their respective countries by facts on the ground and then ratified by international law in 1783.

We wouldn't appreciate Russia meddling along our borders. Is it such an outrageous proposition to understand why Russia doesn't appreciate our meddling along theirs?

Our own political elites love to distract the American people with their non-stop foreign interventions. All the better to distract us from their on-going exploitation of our financial resources and the abridgments of our liberties.