There are rumors of war in Crimea. Russia has 150,000 troops massed on Ukraine’s border, has forces controlling the strategic Black Sea port of Sevastopol and two airports, and is demanding the surrender of two Ukrainian warships. Someone else’s problem? A rising Russia from a spreading Russian empire is everyone’s problem, including America’s.
Vladimir Putin attempted to seize Georgia in 2008 but succeeded only in detaching ethnically Russian South Ossetia and Abkhazia. (The Sudetenland comes to mind.) His invasion of the Crimea region is his latest incremental effort to reabsorb Ukraine—Russia’s breadbasket and home to its Black Sea Fleet—back into at least vassal status. Poland is surely next. Its minister of foreign affairs tweeted, “Poland has demanded an emergency ministerial meeting of the North Atlantic Council on the Russian intervention in Ukraine.” Perhaps Poland would be wise to hold military exercises of its own along a significant eastern border.
Britain’s Daily Mail sparked alarm last week when it suggested that the U.K. and the United States could be drawn into war under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. That agreement by which we persuaded Ukraine to give up its nuclear arsenal obliged us “to protect Ukraine’s borders.”
A treaty-triggered world war is unlikely. The Budapest Memorandum only obliges us not to invade Ukraine or economically pressure the country into submission. (Russia has violated both of these provisions.) If Ukraine suffers a nuclear attack, it requires us only “to seek immediate United Nations Security Council action to provide assistance.”
It is also not a treatyas such, but merely a diplomatic affirmation. The U.S. Senate did not ratify it, and so its binding authority is at best ambiguous. Either way, it only reaffirms what is already contained in the Helsinki Accord and the UN charter.
This side of our Lord’s return, peace among nations in this world comes from one of three influences: balance of power, submission to power, or convergence of interests. Commerce and effective democratic institutions bring peace in the third way. Putin has been pushing Ukraine for the tyrant’s peace, which is the second way. Planting the bear’s paw in Crimea is merely an escalation of the use of force from economic to military power.
President Obama’s mistake since the start of the three-month street protests in Kiev has been thinking that a safe and decent international order will just happen without the counterweight of American power in some form or another against expansionary, tyrannical nations. He was silent during the protests. He sent merely the vice president to speak with the teetering President Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s now ousted pro-Russian leader. He issued a highly tentative warning against Russian military action. (We will threaten “costs” only if many others do as well?)
Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 because he took the ambivalent words of our ambassador as an indication of American indifference. Well-timed and calibrated threats, verbal and non-verbal, from a credible American president can make the difference between war and peace, between crisis averted and decades of suffering and destruction.
Crimea is not Obama’s fault. Guilt lies with the invader. But what a time to be leaderless in America.