Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Russia and Crimea

Moscow's actions are illegal and wrongheaded, but disaster could still be averted.
russian ship crimea

Russia has seized control of Crimea, and its upper house of parliament has voted to authorize the use of the military in Ukraine. This is a wrongheaded and illegal move, but it is one that Moscow presumably thinks that it has been forced into making. As Moscow views the situation, the legitimate Ukrainian government has been ousted in a coup, and it believes itself to be coming to the defense of Russians inside Ukraine. It’s a gross overreaction to the overthrow of the old government, but one that could still be corrected before it turns into something much worse. However, it seems that Russia is not interested in doing that, and probably wants at least de facto control of Crimea for the foreseeable future. This is a very risky thing for Russia to be doing, and one that could quickly lead to an armed conflict with the new Ukrainian government that would be disastrous for both countries and the surrounding region.

Annexing Crimea outright would be a clumsy and provocative action that would leave the new government in Kiev with almost no choice but to fight, so it seems more likely that there would be an attempt to use continued control over Crimea as leverage in future dealings with Kiev. Does Russia “want” Crimea? Maybe not officially as a part of Russia, but it does seem to want to be able to use control of it to its advantage. Whether this takes the form of phony independence or just autonomy remains to be seen. Obama has threatened Russia that there would be unspecified “costs” for what it is doing, but whatever real costs Russia pays will not be imposed by Western governments or the U.N. Moscow is not only wrecking its reputation with most Ukrainians, but it is also potentially risking a ruinous war that could make it a pariah in much of the world for little real gain.

Western mediation is probably of little use here, but if there is a government that might be able to get through to Moscow at the moment it might be Germany. Because Germany has taken Russian interests into account more often in the past than other major Western governments, it might be able to defuse the situation before it results in violence and further escalation. It should go without saying that the U.S. and NATO shouldn’t make any threats to take their own military action or make promises to Ukraine that everyone already knows they aren’t going to keep. They would be foolish, they wouldn’t be meant or taken seriously, and they would only make the crisis harder to resolve.



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