Should the West trade Crimea for the Ukraine?

If Putin wins the round, he will still lose the game.
Jacob Shively | Mar 11 2014 | comment  

Former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates this weekend suggested that Ukraine’s disputed territory, Crimea, will remain in “Russia’s hand.” Gates agreed with interviewer Chris Wallace of Fox News Sunday that “Crimea is gone.”

Gates is widely respected on the right and left. If his assessment is true, what long-term strategy is available to the US? How should Western policy makers evaluate this crisis?

Putin, for instance, may be playing chess or simply rolling the dice.  Obama and other Western leaders may be putting out immediate fires, or they may be holding tightly to core principles.

Fortunately, we can evaluate this crisis in a way that individual personalities and beliefs become a secondary concern. The geopolitical game all sides are playing is governed by rules more stable and longer-lived than this crisis and these leaders.

And based on those rules, Western governments need to lose the current move in order to win the game.

Russian foreign policy makers see the world from a vantage of loss and encirclement.  The Soviet Union’s collapse reversed decades, sometimes centuries, of regional expansion. Meanwhile, a world dominated the American military prowess coupled with singular economic power represents, for Moscow’s strategists and politicians, an unfriendly environment.

Russian grand strategy has consistently sought to dominate its immediate region, and there is no reason to believe that Russians will interpret the world in anything but power-based, realist terms.

As with the Chinese, increasingly, they believe that a world with multiple great powers is both safer and friendlier to their interests. Western governments and Western firms, they reasonably argue, naturally bias political and economic arrangements in their favor. In such a world, regional dominance must be protected.

Western policy makers tend to understand this view, but they also think it is both wrong and dangerous. They have established international institutions, economic regimes and security agreements to reduce the kind of fear and uncertainty that seems to drive Russian grand strategy.

And, of course, along the way, all economies can profit from these arrangements. Though imperfect, this “liberal internationalist” system is a long-term strategy to escape the historical tyranny of power politics.

So now we have two ideologies and their respective strategies at logger heads in Ukraine: realism and Russian security interests versus liberal internationalism and Western institutions.

In the long-run, Putin is probably over-playing his hand. Intimidation and dominance get expensive and require further assertions of power. More importantly, no matter what security and economic zone Moscow establishes in eastern Europe and central Eurasia, it will not beat the West at its own game: generating capital and technological innovation.

These are the support structures of modern power and are unlikely to change quickly.

And yet. Russian interests and prerogatives cannot be ignored. Russians wield real power and are prepared to forcefully defend their interests.

Western diplomatic approaches wisely seek to contain rather than confront Russia’s regional dominance. Long-term, this is a prudent strategy. By taking this approach, though, Western governments also risk undermining their own legitimacy and exacerbating regional instabilities in the short- and middle-terms.

My proposal is simple. And it is neither realist nor liberal internationalist. It is, rather, both.

As Crimea, with Russian backing, pushes for a referendum on independence, Western governments should maintain their objections. They should also privately and not-so-privately float the idea that they might just welcome the rest of Ukraine as a full member of the Western international order.

If a serious break between Ukraine and Crimea occurs, Western leaders should treat Crimea in a way that parallels their policies toward other regions that Russia has “liberated” from neighboring countries. This includes Transnistria in Moldova as well as South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia. In other words, permanently refuse to recognize the legal standing of this new province but take no military action.

A seeming defeat, this move opens a path to victory. Western leaders at this point should fulfill their promises and push to fully integrate the rest of Ukraine into as many agreements and institutions as possible.

In other words, trade Crimea for the larger prize: Ukraine.

It is a realist solution based on power politics, but it advances the liberal internationalist order. It is a move akin to Nixon “opening” China and confirming the break between Moscow and Beijing.

Putin can claim a victory, but it will be pyrrhic. Moscow will have gained little it did not already hold: access to the Black Sea and military infrastructure in Crimea. What it will lose is the target of its anxiety: a vital trading and cultural partner as well as a huge piece of territory.

In some ways, this is a high-risk strategy. Internal violence may erupt, and politicians will need to sell this calculated trade at home. Ukrainians, of course, may veto the whole effort. And perhaps most importantly, Russian fears of losing Ukraine to NATO or the EU may have fuelled this entire episode. Won’t this trade deepen regional instability?

Unfortunately, not responding or responding weakly carries the exact same risks. Better to play for the whole prize than get mired in the kind of technicalities and unresolved diplomacy in which Moscow clearly carries the day and is emboldened, as it was after the 2008 war in Georgia, to push forward with its current, aggressive strategy.

What about Europe’s reliance on Russian natural gas? Again, this strategy would not fundamentally change the current situation. The sides are co-dependent, so a gradual expansion of pressure is unlikely to seriously change the situation from its current parameters.

Russians are playing by realist rules and realist logics. The West should respond in kind by confronting the realist logic of power politics with liberal internationalism’s more robust and durable appeal. The Soviets could not compete against that force of history, and neither can the Russians.

Fully integrate Ukraine into that western order and allow Crimea and Russia to choose their own, ultimately self-defeating, fates.

Jacob Shively is an Assistant Professor of Government at the University of West Florida. He researches and teaches International Relations and grand strategy.

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