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Here’s How to Think About Russia and the Ukraine Crisis

Daniel Larison answers seven urgent questions about NATO, Putin's irredentism, and a second Cold War.

The Obama administration has imposed economic sanctions on Russian officials, and Russia has been suspended from the G-8. Some in the U.S. are calling for stronger punitive measures. Is this a bad idea?

Some punitive measures, including the targeted sanctions that have already been applied, may serve a limited purpose in expressing U.S. and European disapproval of the seizure and annexation of Crimea. Stronger measures, such as sector-wide sanctions on Russian finance, have the potential to be very damaging to Europe, Russia, and the global economy as a whole without effectively discouraging further Russian interventions in Ukraine.

There is not much evidence from past sanctions regimes that a regime can be coerced into giving up something that it considers to be very valuable, and based on Russian behavior over the last month there is every reason to think that it isn’t going to give up Crimea after having gone to such lengths to acquire it. Insofar as sanctions against Russia increase tensions, they make it more difficult to de-escalate the crisis, and the more expansive and punishing these sanctions are, the worse these tensions are likely to become.

There is the additional danger that Russia will retaliate against Europe and specifically against Ukraine by withholding energy supplies, and that would be very harmful to many European countries that rely most heavily on Russian energy. Sanctions can do significant damage to the Russian economy, but only at an extremely high price that Western governments probably aren’t and shouldn’t be willing to pay. For that reason, I’m not sure what stronger punitive measures will achieve that couldn’t also be achieved through less disruptive and costly measures.

Another factor that Western governments don’t seem to be paying enough attention to is the general lack of support for sanctions elsewhere in the world. China, India, and Japan all appear to be more interested in maintaining good relations with Moscow than they are in punishing it over Crimea, so sanctioning Russia could end up imposing enormous costs on Europe without having as much of a punitive effect as expected.

Sanctioning Russia could also have other consequences for U.S. goals on other issues that are not directly related to Ukraine or the former Soviet Union, such as the negotiations with Iran and the ability to supply and to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Many Westerners imagine that Russia seeks to thwart the U.S. at every turn. That isn’t true right now, but it could become the case if the U.S. and its allies resort to strong punitive measures.

What should the U.S. do in response to Russia’s actions and violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty? How should Europe respond?

It is appropriate to suspend military cooperation with Russia, and the U.S. and EU have already done some of the right things by condemning the annexation and expressing support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. However, reversing the annexation seems extremely unlikely, so trying to prevent the crisis from escalating now has to be the priority.

The current Ukrainian government should have no expectation that it will receive anything more than financial and humanitarian aid. Western governments need to come to an understanding with Russia that all outside governments will consider Ukraine to be a neutral country that won’t align with Russia or the West. Diplomatic efforts should be focused on dissuading Russia from sending any of its forces into Ukraine and on getting Russia to agree to respect the results of the May elections, so that it will acknowledge Ukraine’s new post-election leadership as legitimate.

The crisis in Ukraine came about in part because of short-sighted attempts to influence the country’s orientation, and it can’t be resolved as long as these attempts are ongoing.

What would George Kennan do?

That depends to some extent on which period of Kennan’s life we’re relying on for guidance, but those differences shouldn’t be exaggerated. Kennan is famously credited with authoring containment doctrine, but he was also much more perceptive about and sympathetic to Russia and Russians than most of the people that supported that doctrine in practice. Certainly, the later Kennan who warned against NATO expansion and unnecessarily provoking Russia in the late ’90s would advise the U.S. to take a much less confrontational approach than it has taken with respect to Ukraine. He would have been critical of Russian actions, because I suspect he would see them as self-defeating and reckless, but he would have been very wary of punishing Russia, since he would have had a keener understanding of their leaders’ motivations and thinking than most of those now demanding Russia’s “isolation.”

Kennan was a vocal opponent of the first round of NATO expansion that included Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic, so it is not hard to imagine how much more forcefully he would have rejected the idea of expanding the alliance—and Western influence more generally—into the former Soviet Union.

In a 1997 diary entry, Kennan recorded his fears about current and future NATO expansion, which he saw as having “unjustifiable and terrible implications” and lamented that it portended a “total, tragic, and wholly unnecessary end to an acceptable relationship of that country to the remainder of Europe.” His New York Times op-ed from the same year described NATO expansion as “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold war era.”

He would likely have seen U.S. and EU actions in Ukraine over the last few months as being similarly misguided and unfortunate and would not have wanted the U.S. to encourage the overthrow of the previous Ukrainian leadership, not least because he would have been more sensitive to Russian concerns and more likely to anticipate Moscow’s hostile reaction. Kennan would probably have seen the Ukraine crisis from last fall until now as a grim vindication of his warnings about the effects of NATO expansion and Washington’s enthusiasm for promoting democracy overseas.

What is Putin up to? What’s the best way to counter regimes that break important international norms?

Putin appears to believe that he is countering undue and unwelcome Western influence in Russia’s vicinity, he thinks he is pushing back against decades of Western overreaching in this part of the world, and he is reacting to the overthrow of a more or less friendly government by political forces that he considers to be hostile to Russia.

He has come up with an ad hoc justification—the protection of ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers—that has been invoked for the purpose of justifying Russian action in Crimea, but it isn’t yet clear how much of this is just nationalist demagoguery for this occasion and how much it tells us something meaningful about future Russian foreign-policy goals. The principle that Putin articulated to defend the annexation of Crimea could be a very dangerous and disruptive one if it became an important part of Russia’s relations with its neighbors, but it is also possible that it was never intended to be applied in other places.

It isn’t very satisfying, but there is not a great deal that can be done to stop regimes from violating international norms if they are intent on doing it. When a regime runs roughshod over international law as blatantly as Russia has, that will inevitably have its own consequences for that regime’s ability to have normal relations with other states, and if it makes a habit of this behavior it will tend to make itself into a pariah.

The implications for NATO?

The annexation of Crimea will produce a short-term boost for the alliance in that it will force its members to remember that it is supposed to be a defensive alliance, and it may prompt some alliance members to take their own military capabilities more seriously.

If the alliance mistakenly concludes from this that it should continue expanding to the east, it will set itself up for additional unnecessary clashes with Russia that could end up fracturing the alliance. If it limits itself to focusing on the defense of the alliance’s Eastern European members, and gives up on military interventions outside of Europe, it could come out of this crisis in better shape than it has been in over the last few years.

What are the consequences of this crisis for the U.S.-Russian relationship? How will it affect negotiations with Syria and Iran?

The Ukraine crisis has been a disaster for the relationship between the two countries, and it may take a decade to repair the damage, if there is any interest on either side to make the effort to repair it. Even when relations were gradually improving and U.S.-Russian cooperation was producing modest results a few years ago, there was enormous resistance in both countries to a closer relationship, and now hardliners in both countries are going to be driving policy decisions in their direction for years to come.

This is great news for China, which stands to benefit in several ways from hostility between Russia and the U.S. It is also likely to benefit hardliners in Iran in that Russia will have fewer incentives to cooperate in pressuring Tehran on the nuclear issue and it will have a new excuse to undermine negotiations between Iran and the P5+1. Syria negotiations have been stalled from the start, but now Russia and Western governments will be less inclined to work with each other on making them a success. The effect on Syria’s conflict may not be that great, but any effect that there is will be a negative one.

Is this Cold War II?

It can’t be for the simple reason that Russia isn’t the Soviet Union and doesn’t really seek to revive anything like it in the future. Americans have no good way of thinking about a Russia that is neither tsarist nor communist, and so we are constantly resorting to comparisons with these earlier periods, but they are very misleading and cause us to misinterpret Russian actions on a regular basis. We may be seeing the beginning of an intensified great power rivalry between the U.S. and Russia in the former Soviet Union. This is as unnecessary as it is undesirable for the U.S., but it doesn’t begin to compare to a global, ideologically-driven rivalry such as the Cold War.

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at The American Conservative.



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