Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized Crimea as a “sovereign and independent state” today, formalizing the theft of the region from the Ukraine. The United States and the European Union have responded with outrage and with limited sanctions on prominent members of the Putin regime (though not their leader) that are doing nothing to convince the Russians that they have made a mistake. The next step appears to be a decision by Putin to annex Crimea that may happen tomorrow. As the U.S. prepares its reaction to this outrage, no one should be laboring under the illusion that there is anything that President Obama or the Europeans can do to restore Ukrainian sovereignty. But there is still time to save what is left of the Ukraine from further Russian aggression as well as to ensure that other independent republics that were once part of the Soviet empire don’t suffer the same fate.
Can the West summon the will to restrain Russia? Putin is under the impression that President Obama is all talk and probably thinks even less of the Europeans. He has already calculated that serious economic sanctions on his country would be as painful for the EU as they are for Moscow. He knows that Obama is more interested in managing U.S. retrenchment from world-power status than in maintaining America’s credibility as a force on the world stage. He is also aware that growing isolationist sentiment on both the right and the left is sapping support for a strong stand in defense of Ukraine.
It is on that point that we should focus today in the aftermath of the staged plebiscite that took place in the Crimea lending the imprimatur of democratic legitimacy to Putin’s land grab. The Rand Paul isolationist wing of the Republican Party (as opposed to the followers of Ron Paul, who is an open Putin apologist) is making noises about this not being America’s fight as well as faintly echoing Putin’s main talking point about the stripping away of Crimea from the Ukraine being no different from the Western-backed secession of Kosovo from Serbia in 1999. Though there are superficial similarities between the two cases, this analogy should be completely rejected.
It is true that at the time the Russians, who were supporting Serbia, warned that a dangerous precedent was set when the United States and its NATO allies decided that Serbia should no longer be allowed to exercise its sovereignty over the province of Kosovo. Like the Ukrainians, the Serbs protested that the complaints of the Kosovars notwithstanding, the West had no right to decide that Serbia’s internationally recognized borders could be redrawn without Belgrade’s permission.
But unlike the situation in Ukraine, Serbian nationalists had created a genuine human-rights crisis in Kosovo with vicious repression of the ethnic Albanian majority in the region. Though Serbia had deep historic ties to Kosovo dating back to the Middle Ages, their rule there had lost its legitimacy due to their depredations that seemed to be a repeat of the horrors that Serbs had perpetrated in Bosnia only a few years earlier. Rather than stand by and watch the slaughter, this time the West intervened and a bombing campaign forced the Serbs to surrender the province. While this could have been seen as a bloodless war to create a greater Albania, in retrospect there’s little doubt that it was the right thing to do. The campaign prevented a potential catastrophe and ended the series of bloody Balkan wars that had followed the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.
What has happened in Ukraine is nothing like that. Instead of an intervention by a great power to save people in a small country, Putin’s gambit is an attempt by a large power to victimize a small country. Though Putin has claimed he is intervening to save the ethnic Russians in the Ukraine, they were in no danger. The only potential human-rights problem is the result of Russian aggression in which ethnic Tatars in the Crimea now feel as if they are about to be squeezed out of a land where they were once the majority.
As Hillary Clinton rightly pointed out, Adolf Hitler patented the notion that local ethnic majorities can be used to tear nations apart in the 1930s. While Putin is no Hitler, his use of Russian nationalism to partition Ukraine threatens the independence and the sovereignty of every independent state in the former Soviet Union. It should be remembered that Ukraine’s independence is guaranteed by a treaty signed by the United States, as are those of other free nations in the region such as the Baltic states.
In allowing Kosovo to be sheared off from Serbia, President Clinton did potentially set a precedent that could be used by tyrants like Putin to threaten other small states. But the real precedent that governs actions such as the events in Kosovo and what is now going on in the former Soviet Union goes back farther than 1999.
Countries that use their sovereignty to victimize other, small peoples and nations effectively forfeit their rights in such situations. Just as Germany’s aggression rendered the complaints of ethnic Germans in Central Europe a mere pretext for atrocities, so too did the actions of the Serbs when they ran amok in the Balkans in the 1990s. Yet rather than legitimizing Russia’s conduct today, the opposite is true.
By smearing Ukraine and committing aggression on false pretexts, it is Russia that has forfeited its right to speak for ethnic Russians outside of its borders or to have its claims over the far-flung territories of the former Soviet empire respected. If there is a Kosovo precedent that applies here it is the one between Serbian aggression and the crimes being committed by the Putin regime. It is to be hoped that Western leaders understand this and won’t let any worries about Russian economic leverage or its claims of popular sovereignty undermine the West’s determination not to let Putin get away with this crime without paying a hefty price.