Russian actions in Ukraine continue to dominate the headlines, and there is no common western policy beyond expressions of disapproval. The question now is what should be done about Putin’s actions? The short answer is, not much. First, because not much can realistically be done by outsiders, and second, given the extent to which the Obama administration has abandoned leadership in the world, things like this are bound to happen in that power vacuum. With the “reset” in relations with Russia in shambles who can have confidence in the ability of this administration to handle this appropriately?
There has been some tough talk from Hillary Clinton, which makes some sense on the surface. She compares the Ukrainian situation to that of Nazi Germany, which grabbed the Czech sudetanland followed other territories on the pretext of protecting Germans in those areas. When there was no effective response Hitler’s appetite increased until the invasion of Poland finally brought on World War II. However, Putin is not Hitler, and the global context is quite different. Britain and France were committed to alliances with Poland. No one apart from Russia is allied with the territories of the former Soviet Union, which we can assume Putin dreams of recreating. But what can he realistically do in that regard?
If Russia were to regain all those territories the Russians themselves would become a minority in the federation. They would have a substantial, growing and increasingly restive population on their hands. They have yet been unable to completely subdue the existing Muslim population in Chechnya and other Russian territories in the Caucasus. The Russian population is roughly 142 million and declining, with a non-Russian minority at nearly 20% and growing. Russia cannot possibly maintain a stable society with more ethnic minorities in its fold. Putin is no fool and he must know this. But he also knows that he can annex some territories with little to lose.
Crimea, which is now basically occupied, has a Russian majority and the regional government is seeking a referendum on joining Russia. That should be amended to say rejoining Russia, insofar as Crimea was in fact Russian territory until Kruschev ceded it to the then Ukrainian SSR, in what was basically an internal shuffle, never imagining an independent Ukraine. From the Russian point of view they are simply reoccupying historically Russian territory. Given the history and the demographics there is not much of a case for a strong response to this by anyone. Putin took advantage of the political turmoil in Ukraine. A similar case could be made for Russian majority areas in eastern Ukraine. As long as there are substantial majority-minority population differences there is certain to be instability, and a degree of sorting out would mitigate that and eliminate any pretext for further aggrandizement. A more Ukrainian Ukraine could then pursue its goal of joining the west via the European Union.
What disturbs much of the world is the use of force in this situation, and for that there should be consequences. The problem is that there is really no one in a position to do much of anything. The next step would be to give a strong message along the lines of “this far but no further.” The problem is that the US administration has drawn red lines before that fell away without consequences, and has no credibility left. The outrage of some hawks on the right is misplaced. This is not the Soviet Union. Russia is not an enemy and there is nothing to be gained by treating it like one. The notion of the west versus Russia is a false dichotomy. . Russia has been a part of the “west” in some sense, at least since Peter the Great. The real barrier to better relations and integration with the western world is the lack of rule of law in Russia. To be continued.