We constantly hear the mainstream American reaction to the Ukrainian crisis, with a number of authors even comparing Putin’s actions in the Crimea to Hitler’s takeover of Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland. My goal, both in today’s post and Sunday’s is to provide alternative perspectives so that you can then draw your own conclusions.
An interesting perspective appeared in today’s New York Times in an OpEd entitled “What Putin Wants.” Although its author heads a think tank supported by the Russian military-industrial complex and therefore brings a certain bias to the table, he makes some points worth considering:
Mr. Putin’s aim is not a de jure separation of Crimea from the rest of Ukraine. … Russia has a strong interest in nominally retaining Crimea as part of Ukraine … [because it guarantees] almost a million “pro-Russian” votes in Ukrainian elections, ensuring the dominance of the pro-Russian eastern half of the country over the nationalist western half. [The Crimea was part of Russia until 1954, when Khrushchev “gave” it to Ukraine, and most of its population is Russian.]
If the Ukrainian nationalists had been smarter and more farsighted, they themselves would have advocated a renunciation of claims to Crimea in order to remove this needle in their side, but their desire for a Greater Ukraine has trumped sober political calculations.
Mr. Putin is a more farsighted and coldblooded calculator. He will therefore strive to keep Crimea as part of Ukraine … Western governments, meanwhile, brought a crisis upon themselves by supporting the seizure of power by forces that were manifestly unrepresentative of the full political spectrum of Ukraine and its various regions. …
The net result of yet another Ukrainian revolution will be de facto Russian control of Crimea, and a Kiev government commercially and personally bound to Mr. Putin. … The losers will be those simpletons of international politics — including the United States — who mistook the clashes of some Ukrainian neo-Nazis with Mr. Yanukovych’s police force for the dawning of democracy and the beginning of a Ukrainian Spring.
Another, very different perspective is provided by the University of Chicago’s Prof. John Mearsheimer. As background, I should note that Mearsheimer believes that the world becomes safer as more nations obtain nuclear weapons, and refers to them as “weapons of peace.” In 1993, he therefore saw it as a mistake when Ukraine agreed to give up the huge nuclear arsenal – then the world’s third largest – which it had inherited from the Soviet Union. Back then he wrote:
The conventional wisdom about Ukraine’s nuclear weapons is wrong. In fact, as soon as it declared independence, Ukraine should have been quietly encouraged to fashion its own nuclear deterrent. … A nuclear Ukraine makes sense … [because] it is imperative to maintain peace between Russia and Ukraine.
Mearsheimer continued that train of thought this past Monday, in a Global Security Network posting which quoted from an email he had sent:
If Ukraine had a real nuclear deterrent, the Russians would not be threatening to invade it. … [Also] I doubt whether we [the U.S.] would have been so anxious to foster a coup. One treads very lightly – to put it mildly – when threatening the survival of a nuclear-armed state, or even the regime in charge of it.
While I don’t subscribe to Mearsheimer’s nuclear optimism, I believe he is right that nations tread much more cautiously when dealing with nuclear-armed adversaries. However, my conclusion is very different: that we should tread much more cautiously even with non-nuclear-armed nations since, otherwise, we unwittingly encourage them to seek nuclear weapons.