Why the West Can’t Save Ukraine

News Abroad
tags: Russia, Ukraine, Crimea

Michael H. Creswell is associate professor of history at Florida State University.

Image via Wiki Commons.

After weeks of political unrest following years of comprehensive misrule, Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, saw that his days as a free man were numbered. Seeing his grip on power fading fast, Yanukovych, a Russian ally, fled the country under cover of darkness, just steps ahead of the protesters, who soon took power in Kiev. 

While the West celebrated the Ukrainian protestors’ victory, it was only a matter of time for the other shoe to drop—and that did not take long.  Russia soon declared that Yanukovych was still the legitimate leader of Ukraine and that the opposition had seized power unlawfully.  Taking matters several steps further, Moscow dispatched military forces, which have effectively taken control of Crimea, a largely pro-Russian region that the former USSR gave to Ukraine in 1954. 

While this transfer was a meaningless move during the Soviet era, following the USSR’s collapse in 1991 it has become a significant point of contention between Russia and Ukraine. The Crimean peninsula has the key Russian naval base of Sevastopol, which is home to the Russian Black Sea fleet.  This strategically-positioned base enables Russia to control the Black Sea and access to the Bosporus and Dardanelles.  Losing control of the Crimea would be a big setback to Moscow.

In this entire affair, there has been just one big surprise:  that the US and West Europe failed to see the obvious.  For reasons unknown, they thought that: 1) they could facilitate the toppling of a democratically-elected government that had friendly relations with Russia and replace it with a pro-Western regime; and 2) Russia would not respond negatively to this development and go to great lengths to cause them enormous trouble.  For the West, this has been a huge blind spot.

In response to Russia’s moves, the West has begun to issue a number of threats, including: sending US warships to the region; calling a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission, the decision-making body responsible for developing the NATO-Ukraine relationship; suspending the June G8 summit scheduled for Sochi; and freezing Russian assets held in Western banks.  But would any of these moves force Russia to back down?

Before Western leaders go any further, they should ask themselves a number of hard questions:

Isn’t it obvious that Ukraine is of enormous strategic importance to Russia and that Moscow will go to great lengths to thwart the West in a tug of war over Ukraine?

Isn’t obvious from the 2008 Georgian War and the dispatch of military forces to the Crimea that the Russians believe Ukraine and Georgia are core vital interests and that they will fight if the West tries to turn those countries into pro-Western bastions? 

Isn’t obvious that the West is effectively violating Russia’s version of the Monroe Doctrine and that Moscow will react similarly to the way Washington reacted when a European power tried to interfere in the Western hemisphere?  Remember that President John F. Kennedy cited the Monroe Doctrine when he sought to end Soviet efforts to place atomic weapons in Cuba.

Isn't it obvious that if the West does establish a pro-Western regime in Ukraine, the Russians will work overtime to topple it? Moreover, they will not have much trouble doing so. 

Isn't it obvious that Ukraine is an economic basket case and that the West would have to spend massive amounts of money to bail it out while the Russians would instead work to undermine its economy? 

The answer to these questions is: yes, it is obvious.

In essence, the West has helped to create another avoidable mess.  The West has sought to issue ultimatums about events that are not part of its core strategic interests, yet are vitally important to the other side. And once again, it is hard to see how the West backs down without suffering another big blow to its credibility.

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