Crisis in Ukraine

The events that led to Russia’s annexation of Crimea require a measure of political perspective. The protests in Kiev were not about government corruption, though many suspected that there was plenty. They were not about vote fraud either. According to international observers, former President Viktor Yanukovych  had been properly elected during the  2010 national vote. The protests were about the economic agreement President Yanukovych decided to enter with Russia.

Without justifying the use of violence by former President Yanukovych or President Vladimir Putin’s cloaked invasion, it is a fact that the Ukrainian government was within its constitutional rights to accept the Russian deal. The deal at the time—15 billion in aid and discounted prices of natural gas versus little financial aid from the European Union (EU) and tough-to-swallow economic reforms–would have been more favorable to Ukraine in the immediate future, although likely not so in the long run. Certainly there was nothing politically or morally wrong with the EU and Russia in seeking to lure Ukraine within their respective economic spheres of influence; each side was free to attract new partners within the boundaries of ethical proprieties and international law.

Nonetheless, in democracies, the behavior of the opposition too often shapes the way government will react. If opposition is expressed peacefully and within acceptable democratic practices governments tend to allow it. Mistakes happen when either side violates the democratic process that requires peaceful demonstrations until national elections are held. Neither bullets nor riots, but the ballot, should have decided the impasse in Ukraine. By choosing violence and anarchy, the Ukrainian opposition–as heroic and well-intentioned their objectives may have been–lost constitutional and moral credibility. The opposition found the democratic process too cumbersome to get its will felt. Should it be any surprise that pro-ethnic Russians in Crimea (with Putin’s involvement) decided to play by the same rules the Ukrainian opposition in Kiev dictated?

The Ukrainian opposition and its provisional government did not aid their cause by showing colossal indifference toward their ethnic Russian compatriots in Crimea. The protestors in Kiev failed to communicate that their anger had nothing to do with their brothers and sisters in the peninsula. The Ukrainian provisional government also failed to address Crimean concerns by not soliciting immediate representation from among ethnic Russians in the region.

The Ukrainian opposition made the initial mistake by engaging in violent anarchic behavior that led to the government’s brutal and unjustified response. Once governments (Ukraine, the EU, US, Russia), through sheer incapacity or seeking to gain political advantages, allowed or supported anarchic behavior to dictate policy, anything, including worst-case scenarios, was to be expected. Having won in 2010 by a sizable number of votes, including votes in Crimea, Yanukovych consummated his political and constitutional demise by choosing not to confront the crisis. Nonetheless, in no way did his departure justify the opposition’s actions, or the West’s patent behavior in encouraging the revolt to continue.

Would any of the governments within the EU or Washington consent to violence and anarchic behavior as means to coerce changes in policy directions? Would opponents of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act feel justified in resorting to such actions to force him to change his mind about the act? Would the American people have justified rioting and the destruction of federal buildings to oppose President Bush’s 2003 Iraq invasion and to oust him from office, all along while foreign political rivals were traveling to Washington, D.C. to stoke the opposition’s anger against the war?

The invasion of Crimea might be better understood as having been fueled by deep-seated cultural affinities. It was more of an emotional than a political reaction, one that enhanced Putin’s image before the eyes of his people following a very public and humiliating rejection by Kiev. The West, however, played into President Putin’s hand by actively supporting violent protests against the Yanukovych government. Putin likely realized that Ukraine had become a zero-sum game in which the West was showing little interest in coming to an agreement that would satisfy both sides’ interests; he decided to minimize his losses even if it meant escalating the conflict.

As soon as President Putin’s stealth forces invaded Crimea recriminations began in the United States. But, did the United States not lay down rules of behavior in the international arena through several invasions of its own, including Iraq in 2003 under false or specious claims? Did President Reagan not pursue military action in Grenada under the pretense of safeguarding American medical students on the island? So, ‘If they do it, why can’t I too,’ Putin likely asked himself. This does not mean that US behavior led to Putin’s actions; only that it made it much easier for him to act in such a reckless manner. He chose to mimic Washington’s behavior when it suited his interests. The difference—one the West cannot afford to ignore–is Putin’s intention to annex foreign territories as opposed to schemes based on intervention, attempts at political stabilization, transfer of power, and departure.

Our immediate response to Putin’s behavior was to morally and politically condemn Russia; domestic politics and the international rule of law would not have allowed a less hypocritical moral discourse. For nearly four decades, American foreign policy has been formulated, implemented, and conditioned by domestic politics. Political leaders and pundits have preferred to address our enemies and opponents with American public opinion very much in mind. Such behavior weakens the need for a secret and more personal diplomacy that in the end tends to be more effective than public recriminations and threats.

Our leaders fail to understand the psychological elements triggered by politicians’ emotional (and political) outcries. Feeling that image is more important than substance, our leaders give in to the need to look strong before our domestic constituency by judging our opponents’ actions from a moral standpoint that we ourselves at times tend to ignore. While resorting to these tactics we fail to see that not too many foreign leaders, much less those who govern autocratically, allow themselves to be publicly humiliated by caving in to public threats. More often than not the end result is the opposite: feeling they cannot show weakness or defeat publicly, foreign leaders will act stubbornly proud and absorb punishment if necessary while devising ways to ‘get back’ at their opponents in other areas. When a crisis reaches this stage diplomatic solutions are hard to come by while the possibility of military conflict begins to loom ahead.

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