There has been a great deal of commentary regarding alleged blunders that have led us to the current position in Ukraine (as I write this, the Ukrainian province of Crimea has voted to join Russia, and Russia has recognized Crimea’s independence, which could be a prelude to annexation).
In reality, the only serious blunder was committed by the new, interim government of Ukraine immediately after taking power, when it declared that Russian would no longer be an official language of the country. This gave Putin to a pretext to act. Chalk it up to inexperience.
The old hands at the table – Russia, the EU, and the US – have played their positions well.
First Russia. Many say Putin is a reckless gambler; and indeed that is true. But he has had no choice but to gamble. Losing Ukraine so soon after asserting Russia’s position on the world stage via the Sochi Olympics was a humiliating blow. Invading Crimea while pretending the troops involved are not Russian and offering Crimea a referendum on secession are awkward ways to cover up a violation of international law. (Perhaps he will next offer Chechnya a referendum on secession from Russia? This is the kind of precedent Putin presumably would rather not have established.)
That said, it appears that Putin may succeed in turning his humiliating loss in Ukraine into a partial victory, by gaining Crimea in some form, with little blood on Russian hands. Once the government of Yanukovych had fallen, that is probably the best outcome Putin could have hoped for. It is thus a bad hand played well, although Crimea may prove easier to take than to hold, and Putin is taking big risks.
Next the US. The Obama administration has been heckled for making empty threats. It appears the limit of US action will be so-called smart sanctions against the Russian regime. This is not a weak response, it is a balanced response: the thing that must absolutely be avoided is to humiliate Russia further.
The US response must be strong enough that Putin is encouraged to draw the line at Crimea. But not strong enough that the US becomes a plausible enemy for Russia – not strong enough that Putin can blame the US for a crumbling Russian economy that is entirely his own fault. The US is a bit player in this drama, and needs to remain a bit player. Leaders in Iran, Cuba, North Korea, and elsewhere play the blame game, demonising the US to hide their own failings, frequently acting deliberately to provoke a US response that is destructive to international security. Russia must not be added to this list. So far, the US administration’s well-calibrated actions seem unlikely to do so.
Which brings us to the EU. The EU’s response has been even softer than the US, which is precisely the right response. In the long run, the EU will win in Ukraine, unless it blunders badly.
To be sure, the EU has backed off from offering Ukraine a membership perspective (to join the European Union), ostensibly in an effort to de-escalate tensions with Russia. Yet in the long run, after the implementation of a deep and comprehensive free-trade area with Ukraine (which is now in progress), this will presumably change, and membership will be put onto the table.
In the coming years, a subtle battle awaits, with Ukraine’s oligarchs deeply ambivalent about the rule-of-law improvements that will accompany the EU agreements (at the request of the US FBI, one of the most pro-Russia of their number, Dmytro Firtash, has just been arrested in Austria, although this battle is by no means won). Ukraine’s middle class is keen on Europe, but has, until recently, lacked the political influence of the country’s oligarchy.
Yet the offer of a membership perspective has never failed to transform a recipient country into an oasis of stability and prosperity – the EU’s batting average in Eastern Europe is thus far perfect. The EU can afford to play the long game in Ukraine, knowing it will win. There is no point in antagonizing Russia, as long as Putin now quits while he is “ahead” (which he probably will do). Russian actions have thus far probably helped the EU in this long struggle, by turning most fence-sitting Ukrainian voters into Europhiles (and probably a few, unfortunately, into ultranationalists). The EU’s soft approach reflects a hand that wins in the end.