Why Does the Ukraine Matter?

The question is posed by my old friend Eric Edelman on The Weekly Standard website. Eric and I overlapped at Cornell and later in graduate school at Yale. After getting a Ph.D. in diplomatic history with a dissertation on Turkey’s entrance into NATO, he joined the Foreign Service. In time, he served as ambassador to Turkey (a job I crave myself), and he was last visible as Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, a post he held from 2005 to 2009.

Here is the answer he gives:

First, [the Ukraine] matters because—despite Putin’s risible claims of anti-Russian violence in Crimea and eastern Ukraine (even Angela Merkel reportedly told President Obama that she thinks Putin is “in another world”)—this is military aggression against a neighboring independent state in the heart of Europe that violates the U.N. Charter and the Helsinki Final Act. Moreover, the pretext upon which it is based, protection of Russian national minorities in Ukraine, could also be used against NATO member states like Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and under Article 5 of the NATO treaty, “an armed attack against one [member state] .  .  . shall be considered an attack against them all.” The future viability of the alliance is at stake here.

Second, if Putin can pull off a smash and grab operation against Crimea without being made to pay a serious and significant price, others will draw their own conclusions. Would the “international community” exact a price subsequently if China seized the Senkaku Islands or even Taiwan? Would Pyongyang or Tehran conclude that it might have more leeway for aggressive moves against its neighbors?

Third, there is a huge nonproliferation issue (allegedly the president’s highest national security priority) at stake. Ukraine, as one of the successor states to the former Soviet Union, found itself in 1991 with nuclear weapons on its territory to which it laid claim. It was one of the Clinton administration’s signal diplomatic achievements to have gotten Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan to agree to return the nuclear weapons on their respective territory to Russia, leaving one nuclear weapons state on the territory of the former USSR rather than four. In return, the United States, United Kingdom, and Russia all signed, along with Ukraine, the Budapest Memorandum, which accompanied Ukraine’s adherence to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Inter alia, that document committed Russia to “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” and imposed on Russia an “obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defense or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.” If left standing, Russian aggression will establish that security assurances offered by the nuclear weapons states to states that willingly give up their nuclear weapons or weapons programs mean precisely nothing.

Eric also has some things to say about what can be done to bring Vladimir Putin to heel, and they deserve heeding — especially because he knows whereof he speaks when he talks about military matters in particular.

I would merely add that it would not take much effort on our part to bring down the Russian economy. The place is a banana republic, or — to be more precise — a petrodollar paradise. Call the Russian bluff. Batten down the hatches and bring oil and gas to Europe from other sources this Spring, and the ruble will crash and Russia fall apart. Seventy-five percent of its exports have to do with energy.

Polls show that seventy percent of the citizens of Russia oppose Putin’s intervention in the Crimea now. If the Russians do not export their oil and gas, they will have next to nothing to eat — and that will not sit well with the Russian people.

Moreover, the place is a kleptocracy: run by and for a handful of oligarchs who profit from exploiting for their own benefit the resources that rightly belong to their fellow citizens, and they stash their loot abroad. Freeze all assets owned abroad by Russian nationals, and his fellow oligarchs will be calling for Putin’s scalp.

Let me add that Putin himself has billions and billions stashed abroad. I am told by a Russian expert here at Stanford that he may be the world’s wealthiest man, and we know under whose name his stolen riches are hidden. Remember: we read their mail.

The coup that Putin is trying to pull off is predicated on the presumption that we and our allies in Europe are so weak-kneed that we will acquiesce. There is one thing that you can be certain of. If we do acquiesce, this will not be Vladimir Putin’s “last territorial demand in Europe.”

There is this to be said in defense of Neville Chamberlain. Hitler made such a promise at the time he signed the Munich Agreement, and Chamberlain believed it. Putin has said nothing of the kind.

To acquiesce is to risk losing everything that we gained in World War II and the Cold War. Ron Paul, Rand Paul (I suspect),  and the Cato Institute notwithstanding, our long-term well-being depends upon there being a tolerably reliable international order relatively free from thuggery and open to trade. This does not mean that we have to be deeply concerned with every bit of foolishness that goes on. It does not mean that we have to be the world’s policeman. But when a power possessing nuclear arms runs amok and begins seizing territory from its neighbors, we have to act.

Isolationism made sense in the 19th century when we could rely on the British to support such an order. It made no sense in the 1920s and the 1930s as we learned the hard way in 1941, and it makes no sense now.

I am not suggesting that there is any need for histrionics. Nor do I think that we need to put boots on the ground. We simply need to use the economic levers at our disposal. In situations like this one, the less that statesmen posture the better. Talk softly, and wield a big stick with vigor and cunning. That should be our policy.

  1. viruscop

    For once, I agree with you.

  2. Kozak

    I would also add that Ukraine was there when WE called.They provided combat troops for operations in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. Surely we owe them SOME level of support now.

  3. Sisyphus

    When I am POTUS you are assured the ambassadorship, Paul, even if I have to say no to Claire. You are absolutely correct that tolerance of this thuggery invites more, and the kind of destabilization we saw in the thirties as dithering by the West led directly to massive worldwide horror.

    As we pursue the course you suggest, a few well placed comments about how much happier Russians could be under new leadership could do wonders. Rolling out regular revelations regarding Putin’s personal wealth would be in order as well.

  4. John Walker
    Paul A. Rahe:

    I would merely add that it would not take much effort on our part to bring down the Russian economy. The place is a banana republic, or — to be more precise — a petrodollar paradise. Call the Russian bluff. Batten down the hatches and bring oil and gas to Europe from other sources this Spring, and the ruble will crash and Russia fall apart. Seventy-five percent of its exports have to do with energy.

    I’m not so sure you could supplant Russian exports to Europe on such a short term basis.  Even if the Western Hemisphere had the capacity to replace Russian supply, you would need to build LNG and petroleum terminals to handle the imports and pipelines to distribute them in Europe.  Certainly possible, but within a few months?

    There are also possible unintended consequences.  Despite Russia being energy-rich and China being energy-poor, there have been few energy exports from Russia to China.  Cutting off the European market might cause the Russians to pivot toward the east, creating an entente the West may ultimately regret.

  5. Paul A. Rahe
    C

    I do not believe that, if we acted now, it would take very long for the Russians to cave. Petroleum is not a problem. Before the Russians came along, the Europeans imported it from the Arab world. Natural gas may be a greater problem.

    But here is the point. The winter is ending. If all Russian assets are frozen, they will not be able to import food this Spring.

    They are not what they were in, say, 1979. They are integrated into the world economy, and they are desperately dependent on it.

    As for China, I explained in an earlier post why those pipelines do not exist. They would give China a motive for seizing Siberia.

    Against a country in as bad a shape as Russia is, a little backbone would go a long ways.

  6. HVTs

    It has been surprising to find there’s so many on the Right whom need convincing that standing up to Russian thuggery is in our enlightened self interest.  The river Appeasement runs deeper than I realized.  It’s a given that Europe won’t hold fast against this sort of brutality, but it’s disconcerting to learn how European we’ve already become. 

  7. Elephas Americanus

    Moreover, the pretext upon which it is based, protection of Russian national minorities in Ukraine, could also be used against NATO member states like Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania

    Under that pretense, couldn’t Vlad the Annexer drop some Russian troops and tanks in to protect the huge populations of ethnic Russians in, say, Brighton Beach (a.k.a., Little Odessa) or West Hollywood? Yes, West Hollywood:  The same city that prides itself on being the most gay-friendly city in America also happens to have the largest concentration of Russian immigrants in the U.S. outside New York City. If it’s his duty to protect Russians from the menace of gay propaganda, can we expect to see the T-90s rolling up Santa Monica Boulevard soon?

  8. Sisyphus

    Unfortunately, our appeaser in chief is hopping from golf course to golf course in the Florida sun, hiding from the job he was never prepared to do. So we will never know how long Putin would have lasted against meaningful pressure.

  9. Earlg

    From an oil companies owners rep. point of view of building LNG facilities & pipelines -including, permitting, design, procurement & construction- let me put it quite simply:  Think Keystone XL x 100000.

    As for collapsing Russia’s economy from my foreign policy point of view:  Think Syria x 1000000. 

    My expectation:  Russia takes what it wants with some bone tossed to the EU.

  10. Manfred Arcane

    What you are missing maybe is the pro-Russian sentiment in the Crimea and the proximity and history of Ukraine visa-vis Russia.  It is not reasonable to expect that Russia will be tolerant of a US sphere of influence that laps up on Russia’s border.  Henry Kissinger’s op-ed seemed quite wise on the subject: make Ukraine sort of a bridge between West and East, and try to avoid it opting for one camp or the other.

    We have to distinguish policies that make great sense, by respecting Kissinger’s concept – i.e., by being territorially non-expansionist ((1) build the cancelled missile defense bases in Poland and Czech Republic, and 2) expand our petro-fuel exports), from those that don’t (e.g., add Ukraine to NATO)

    HVTs: It has been surprising to find there’s so many on the Right whom need convincing that standing up to Russian thuggery is in our enlightened self interest.  The river Appeasement runs deeper than I realized.  It’s a given that Europe won’t hold fast against this sort of brutality, but it’s disconcerting to learn how European we’ve already become.  · 32 minutes ago

  11. Manfred Arcane

    It’s not just a one-way street though; We can easily gain from Russia’s perfidy, if we seize the opportunities presented:  We made concessions to Russia early on in BO’s tenure, expecting our munificence to be reciprocated.  Now that our hopes are dashed, well, all we have to do is ‘reverse’ the ‘reset’, and gain back what we denied ourselves previously.

    Just for starters, (as I have said ad nauseum in Ricochet, sorry) we can gain a much more solid defense posture against Iran (and somewhat against Russia even, at least so far as defending Europe is concerned) by deploying our cancelled missile defense sites in Poland and Czech Republic.  We gain a working relationship with those two countries, and those around them in the process.  This imposes high costs on Russia on multiple levels.

    Earlg: From an oil companies owners rep. point of view of building LNG facilities & pipelines -including, permitting, design, procurement & construction- let me put it quite simply:  Think_Keystone_XL x 100000.

    As for collapsing Russia’s economy from my foreign policy point of view:  Think Syria x 1000000. 

    My expectation:  Russia takes what it wants with some bone tossed to the EU. 

  12. Manfred Arcane

    Conversely, if these companies have/or ever had any plans for the LNG facilities, now is the time to push them, because the public might prod the government to cut the red-tape a lot (a) “conceivably”, (b) “in theory”, (c) “fantastically”.

    This is one time that Republicans might even approve of the US Government underwriting some of the costs of a private venture – it advances our interests both domestically and overseas.

    Earlg: From an oil companies owners rep. point of view of building LNG facilities & pipelines -including, permitting, design, procurement & construction- let me put it quite simply:  Think Keystone XL x 100000.

  13. Manfred Arcane

    K.T.McFarland laid out a nice counterstrategy to Putin.  Here it is:

    http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2014/03/03/how-obama-could-stop-putin-ukraine-power-grab-without-firing-shot/

    If the electorate just whines about his inaction without articulating what they want him to do, Obama won’t feel like he has to answer to them in any concrete way.  

    So maybe we should be a bit more specific about what we want him to do. Treat it like formulating a clear task description, vice vague orders.

  14. Carver

    I think we ought to use “the” for everyone. The Russia, The China, etc sort of like my dear old grandma used to say The Led Zeppelin.

    Matthew Gilley: May I be picky? It’s “Ukraine,” not “the Ukraine.” · 11 hours ago

  15. HVTs

    Manfred –

    – Huge contradiction between saying, OTOH, “It is not reasonable to expect that Russia will be tolerant of a US sphere of influence that laps up on Russia’s border”, and OTOH, “build the cancelled missile defense bases in Poland and Czech Republic.”  Precisely those missile defenses, inter alia, Russia views as extending US influence to its borders.  Russian territory at Kaliningrad borders Poland and Lithuania. 

    – By what logic, if Russia can annex Crimea, it can’t do the same in Lithuania?  A border, an historical territorial claim and ‘threatened’ ethnic Russians all apply.  And there’s no Budapest Memorandum with which to contend.

    – Are you really persuaded by the argument from historical record when it comes to territorial integrity and sovereignty?  In Europe!?!  What’s to prevent Germany from reclaiming Konigsberg?  Come to think of it, why don’t we propose a swap – Russia gets Crimea, Germany gets Kaliningrad/Konigsberg.  Something tells me those willing to accede to Russian armed annexation of Crimea would have no such broadmindedness if Merkel sent the Wehrmacht into Kaliningrad.  Which makes that point that what you are really arguing for is appeasement dressed up in geo-strategic gobbledygook.

  16. James Of England

    I think that you greatly underestimate the expense and effort that would be required to get Europe to work that hard against Putin. Even if John Walker were wrong about whether it was possible if fortunes were spent on it, I don’t believe many Republicans would support it, which would means that it was not a workable option for Obama.

    That quibble aside, I thought this was an excellent piece.

  17. Matthew Gilley

    May I be picky? It’s “Ukraine,” not “the Ukraine.”

  18. Manfred Arcane

    @HVT #22

    The comment:

    “It is not reasonable to expect that Russia will be tolerant of a US sphere of influence that laps up on Russia’s border”

    is directed at those who want to bring Ukraine into NATO, which is a far more overt degree of expansionism of the West towards Russia’s borders than the US installing an interceptor site in Poland and an advanced radar in ‘The’ Czech Republic (to use the ‘the’ or not, that is the question).  

    Agree, or not?

    The MD deployment also is far preferable for the following reasons:

    1) There is infinitely less chance that the US will be drawn into a direct armed conflict with Russia (Ukraine in NATO means we are automatically required to come to its aid militarily if Russia assails Ukraine in any way)

    2) We gain a great deal with enhanced MD – it is not clear what we gain by bringing Ukraine into NATO.  It is more of a tripwire of a boobytrap – for both the US and Russia – than of any material benefit to US, as far as I can see.

    3) Both Poland and Czech Republic (no ‘The’ this time) are currently well ensconced in_NATO….

  19. Manfred Arcane

    cont…

    What we need is some discrimination here about the way we impose costs on Russia for their actions in the Crimea.  The MD option is discriminant in how it imposes costs, bringing Ukraine into NATO is not.

    The rest of your post seems somewhat inchoate to me.  Are you saying that the sentiment in Crimea, and perhaps other parts of the Ukraine, for some affiliation with Russia is immaterial in this affair?

    Secondly, statements like this, “Merkel sent the Wehrmacht into Kaliningrad” are just so completely unhinged from reality and relevance to these discussion that one does not know where to begin addressing them.  The ‘similarities’ between such a fanciful event and the Crimean incursion are so strained as to make mention of them an exercise in sophistry.

    Russia has ‘ownership’ of Kaliningrad because they didn’t give it up when USSR broke up, and no one had any appetite to contest that resolution, least of all the Kaliningrad* folks, it appears.

    *Funny story (sort of).  My son derives his name (Conan) in no small part because I happened to like the ring of “Kaliningrad”, and the combination of his first and last names sounded like that city.

  20. HVTs
    Dave Molinari: Yes, it is Ukraine per Matthew Gilley. The Ukraine is outdated.

    It’s worse than outdated.  If “the” South a had won the War of Northern Aggression, it wouldn’t still be referred to as “the South.”  We call it “the South” because it’s (still) part of the greater whole, like “the West” and “the Northeast.”  So every time we refer to Ukraine as “the Ukraine” we are (albeit subtly) reaffirming Russian domination over what is a sovereign nation state.  (Although I suspect it wouldn’t seem “subtle” to ethnic Ukrainians when a Russian refers to his country thus.  Having said that—and I’m not an expert Russian speaker, by any stretch—the definite article ‘the’ doesn’t (much) exist in Russian . . . it’s imported in translation to English (and perhaps other languages).  Dave – you can help us out on the Russian here, da? . . . [:-)

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