Ukraine requires deft handling

What should the United States do about the crisis in Ukraine?

What can we do?

Our options are pretty limited. Military action is surely out of the question. For NATO to attempt a counterinvasion of the Crimean peninsula, either from sea or through the narrow isthmus that connects the peninsula with the rest of Ukraine, or even to attack Russian forces in Crimea from the air, would prove very costly both to us and to Ukrainian civilians, and could escalate in unpredictable ways.

It’s complicated, to say the least.

More than half of Crimea’s population is ethnically Russian. Russia turned over the Crimea to Ukraine in 1954, but the bulk of the population there remains favorable to Russia.

When the Russian-leaning government of Ukraine was overthrown by a people’s revolution last week, and an interim, Western-leaning government took over, Russia used the potential threat of danger to ethnic Russians in Crimea as an excuse to send in troops to “protect” its ethnic population there.

There’s no evidence that any such depredations had occurred, or were going to, but Russia based its invasion on that possibility.

It’s the same kind of rationale that Hitler used in the 1930s when he expanded the German Reich into German-speaking areas of neighboring nations like Poland, Austria, Czechoslovakia and France. Those areas had been stripped away from Germany after World War I and awarded to adjacent countries.

What’s more, Europe derives a big portion of its natural gas supply from Russia, through pipelines across Ukraine. If push came to shove, Russia could cut off that supply.

The only real arrow in the West’s quiver is economic.

Russia’s economy is not as strong relative to the rest of the world as it was prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. Western sanctions on Russia would be somewhat damaging to the West, but much more of a problem to Russia.

Russia belongs to the G-8, the economic amalgam of powerful nations that dominates the world’s economy. Probably the greatest threat the West could muster in response to Russia’s incursion into Ukraine would be to expel Russia from the G-8, at least for now, a sanction that would begin to sting immediately.

However, the West currently benefits from East-West cooperation in several areas, such as nuclear disarmament, pressure on Iran, and attempts to improve the situation in Syria.

How to continue those efforts while at the same time pressuring Russia on Ukraine is dicey.

Ukraine is much more important to Russia than it is to the West. How far the West is willing to go to stand up to Russia on its violation of treaties guaranteeing Ukraine’s territorial integrity remains to be seen.  

Russia’s Putin has apparently made a calculated decision that expanding Russian control over at least part of Ukraine is worth whatever retaliation the West is willing to throw at him. The U.S. and Europe have a spotty record in that regard recently, especially in their wobbly response in Syria.

If you say that illegal actions have consequences, and then vacillate in following through, you invite more illegality elsewhere. That may be what we’re facing in Ukraine.

The situation requires expert handling.

We hope the West is up to it.

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