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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