Ukraine: impotent activism and the limits of US power

Tomorrow will bring the referendum on Crimea leaving Ukraine and joining Russia. Most people are aware of the sequence of events: the Ukrainian president turning down a deal with the EU in favour of one with Russia; mass protests in Kiev leading to the fall of the government; the new government being unacceptable in Crimea and then the entry of the Russian army.

This sequence of events can be argued over at great length with arguments for and against each side. Although those arguments can be cogently and rationally rehearsed the reality is that outside supporters of one side or the other seem in general to decide which side to support and then fit the facts into their preferred narrative. We in Northern Ireland have an understanding of ethnic conflicts (even in the absence of genuine differences) and might by some be expected to take a more nuanced approach. However, as is usual we pick a side and support it loyally: the only difference from usual being that all prods do not support one side and all taigs the other.

Clearly most of the politically powerful in Europe and the USA have supported the Ukrainian side against Russia. When President Viktor Yanukovych decided on closer ties with Russia this was seen as a win for Putin; then when the revolution brought a pro western regime many in the media suggested that Putin had miscalculated and some even suggested that Obama the great poker player has outmanoeuvred the chess playing Putin. With the Russian occupation of Crimea and the West’s enraged but fairly impotent response, however, Putin seems at by most people’s analysis to have won.

There may be sanctions though their capacity to hurt especially Germany and indeed the rest of Europe just as much as Russia should not be underestimated. Furthermore threatening Russian oligarchs in London with assorted financial penalties is unlikely to have much effect. As Simon Jenkins notes in the Guardian: “It is a strange world that equates invading Crimea with being banned from Kensington.” On matters perceived to be of national security and long term national interest, issues like sanctions which will last at most a few years are not going to be major considerations for the Russian government or its population: just as they would not be for the UK or USA.

The only option which would make Putin really stop would be the possibility of military action and we all know that even if he invaded the whole of Ukraine there is absolutely no prospect of that happening. The USA’s moving a few aircraft to Poland is not going to be anything other than muscle flexing.

For many years we have grown used to the West and especially America being able to assert military power in a variety of conflicts: Iraq in both Gulf Wars, former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Libya; almost in Syria. Now as the BBC’s Mark Mardell has noted: “no-one sensible is talking about military action. Indeed, it is striking that not even stupid people are talking about military action.” (does that mean John McCain?) What is happening rather is as Simon Jenkins again observes: “Everywhere, something must be done and nothing can be done. Must fights can” Back to Mark Mardell form the BBC: “This is a critical moment for US power – and its limits.” Criticising Obama is not really fair unless one is complaining that he got involved in the first place: the only superpower will not and cannot stand up to Russia if the Russians take the issue more seriously than the Americans: a message both the Russians and Chinese will note.

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  • Gopher

    I don’t think there is much of a case for doing anything other than saving what one can. The Ukrainian forces were impotent so split the place up by plebiscite and put what’s left in the EU and more importantly NATO and get the parties to sign a treaty agreeing to it and the new frontiers.

  • sherdy

    Like it or not, Putin has virtually annexed Crimea. One can only hope that it does not give him the idea that he can grab any more of east Ukraine.

    You mention the USA’s ‘muscle flexing’, but in reality it just seems like a pathetic useless gesture, as like it or not, the referendum will cede victory to Russia.

    John Kerry was complaining to Sergei Lavrov about his country interfering in another country’s affairs. Was he not doing the same in travelling to London to discuss the Ukrainian situation with the Russian?

    But the worry will be that the next few months’ political changes will cause repercussions and uncertainty in the rest of Europe for years to come.

  • Canisp

    I imagine that after the goldfish-like attention span of the West’s media is exhausted, the Crimea will settle down to being a de facto Russian possession, like Transdniestria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia before. Putin will not be so outre as to push for de jure authority. The gas pipelines which keep the lights on in Mittel- und Osteuropa will keep flowing, and the mock outrage from lame duck Obama and the EU apparatchiks will subside.

  • New Yorker

    One country invaded another sovereign country in 21st century Europe and that makes this a very serious matter. Military options are not discussed because economic measures are considered sufficient to resolve the matter. As Chancellor Merkel said Putin is in “another world” and out of touch with reality. There were large anti-war demonstrations in Moscow today. When the economic screws are tightened more and more, Putin will find reality knocking on his door.

  • It’s perfectly ok for Kosovo to secede from Yugoslavia because they want to be one of usuns but it’s outrageous for Crimea to secede from Ukraine because they want to be one of themmuns. Hypocrisy rules.

  • Charles_Gould

    New Yorker
    According to the FT, Putin’s actions have been popular with Russian voters.

  • GEF

    Had Ukraine joined NATO in 2010 when asked then all NATO countries would have been under obligation to defend Crimea being invaded by Russian soldiers. In fact Putin may have thought twice about giving such orders to his military power had Ukraine been a member of NATO at present.–NATO_relations

    Regards the toothless tiger of the UN security council, this is now twice, first Syria and now Crimea has shown this council up to be as useless as the NI Assembly in sorting out this matter.

  • Kevsterino

    Yes, there really are limits to US power. But what of European power? The Europeans are going to have to, some day, agree upon European borders or do away with them entirely.

  • JoeBryce

    Turgon’s post is nicely even-handed. I would just observe that it is difficult to see how one could coherently uphold Northern Ireland’s right of self-determination (which I do, while being open-minded on how that right is to be exercised) and deny Crimea’s. It also seems to me imprudent to alienate Moscow when we are likely to need her support in numerous other theatres, but that goes beyond the scope of this blog I think.

  • GEF

    ” I would just observe that it is difficult to see how one could coherently uphold Northern Ireland’s right of self-determination (which I do, while being open-minded on how that right is to be exercised) and deny Crimea’s.”

    Interesting Joe, I could understand this had UK given NI away to the ROI in 1954 on condition the Royal Navy could keep a naval base open (say in Derry). Then at present decide to take NI back into the UK by their right of NI’s population’s self-determination. Crimea and NI are two very different situations.

  • Harry Flashman

    “It’s perfectly ok for Kosovo to secede from Yugoslavia because they want to be one of usuns but it’s outrageous for Crimea to secede from Ukraine because they want to be one of themmuns. Hypocrisy rules.”

    Spot on Joe.

    The breathtaking hypocrisy of the West in regard to the Crimea has left me wondering whether I am living in some sort of parallel universe every time I tune into the BBC.

    NATO launched a massive, unprovoked, assault on a European country bombing its capital city for 100 days and nights killing hundreds of civilian men, women and children and then launched a ground invasion to seize the absolute sovereign territory of that nation utterly against all the precepts of international law.

    But it was ok because it was carried out at the behest of those saintly progressives Bill Clinton and Tony Blair and was supported by the liberal pro-EU establishment in Europe.

    Crimea peacefully votes (it asked for the assistance of the OSCE in the vote and was rejected) and we are told it is “illegal”, an outrage apparently.

    Overthrowing a democratically elected government and installing an unelected junta full of ultra-Nationalists and anti-Semites which promptly bans opposition parties and cracks down on the civil liberties of ethnic minorities is ok of course because once again the liberal pro-EU establishment approves of it, but staging democratic referendums is a no-no.

    We’re living in Bizarro World

  • New Yorker

    Kosovo and Crimea are in no way comparable. Kosovo was a humanitarian operation in an area where mass graves were found. Crimea is the invasion of a sovereign country. The first saved lives, the other is a military take-over.

    If there are people in Crimea who do not want to be part of Ukraine, they should move to Russia and lives of despotism and poverty. It is time the crud Russian navy was removed from Sevastopol and the city restored fully to Ukraine.

    The new government in Kiev is provisional until soon-to-be elections and fully democratic. Hopefully it will soon be a member of the EU.

  • sectarianheadcount

    One country occupies another region on the basis of 58% supportive ethnicity in the (contrived) area. Recipe for disaster and to be internationally condemned. Oh, hang on….

  • Harry Flashman

    There were little or no atrocities in Kosovo prior to NATO deciding to bomb Yugoslavia, certainly nothing that remotely justified the horrific onslaught launched against the civilian population of tiny Serbia by the biggest, most powerful military machine on planet Earth.

    If ripping a part of the sovereign territory out of a nation by massive military force is justified when the nice progressive West does it, then I can hardly see why holding a peaceful referendum in a territory that was handed over to Ukraine on the whim of a Communist dictator should be regarded as so terrible.

    But it’s always okay when the nice pro-EU people do it, isn’t it?