With all of the political pundits piling on about the current crisis in the Ukraine, I’m puzzled that I have yet to hear anyone seriously discuss Russia’s Near Abroad policy. I was very familiar with the policy while stationed in Germany as a senior NATO intelligence analyst in the mid-1990s, following the breakup of the Soviet Union.
President Obama should have anticipated that Russia would intervene in Crimea. The Near Abroad policy asserts Russia’s intent and right to use any and all means to protect ethnic Russians in the former Soviet states. The population of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula is almost 60 percent ethnic Russian. Russian President Vladimir Putin was obliged to intervene.
Russia annexed Crimea from the Ottoman Empire in 1783. Except for periods around World War I and World War II, Crimea was generally accepted as being part of Russia – until 1954, when then Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev gave the region to Ukraine in a move many historians still find puzzling. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia did not reassert its ownership of Crimea. However, it eventually entered into an agreement with Ukraine in 1997 allowing Russia to continue basing its naval fleet at the port of Sevastopol until 2042.
Russia exercised the Near Abroad policy in the neighboring country of Georgia in 2008, where it intervened first with so-called peacekeepers and later with military forces. This was ostensibly done to support the small percentage of ethnic Russians in the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Some have argued this signaled the beginning of a new era of post-Soviet Russian imperialism. Perhaps it did, but I will leave this topic for another discussion.
The CIA World Fact Book indicates that, as of 2012, Russia was the largest exporter of natural gas in the world, exporting more than twice as much as its nearest gas-producing competitors – Norway, Qatar and Canada. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2012, 24 percent of Russia’s natural gas exports went to Germany and all went to European nations (including Turkey, portions of which are in both Europe and Asia).
Germany and the Ukraine’s dependence on Russian natural gas makes them vulnerable to political blackmail. As I discussed in a previous article (“For America and Europe, a sticky oil situation,” The Tribune Democrat, March 21, 2008), in 2006, Russia shut off a major natural gas pipeline because of a political dispute with Ukraine. The pipeline also served downstream gas importer Germany and several other European Union (EU) nations; it caused them considerable difficulty. In 2007, Russia temporarily cut off oil to Belarus. This, again, impacted many downstream EU nations. Russia has established that it will use energy as a tool of persuasion. It can inflict gas pains on the EU and Ukraine with the flip of a switch – and don’t forget it is still winter there!
In a U.S.-Russia dispute over Crimea, Putin holds all the trump cards. Obama could have averted this entire situation by simply stating, “The United States recognizes Russia’s right to protect the ethnic Russian majority in Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula region. We will work with Russia and Ukraine through the UN Security Council to ensure a peaceful resolution to this difficult situation – one that recognizes the sovereignty and rights of both countries and avoids bloodshed.”
The United States has long asserted its right to protect Americans abroad. How can Obama deny Russia the same?
Rather than diffuse the situation, Obama foolishly made toothless threats of economic and political sanctions against Russia. Gaining EU and NATO support for sanctions would, at best, be difficult, given their energy dependency on Russia. Thankfully, the president has left military options out of the discussion, as they should be.
Under political pressure at home over the perpetual war in Afghanistan, Obama can ill afford even to hint at a military solution in Ukraine. From a more practical point of view, it is virtually certain that NATO’s North Atlantic Council would not back any military options aimed at Russia, for reasons already discussed. Besides, given Crimea’s geographic proximity to Russia, NATO is incapable of mustering a credible military response that Russia couldn’t easily counter.
So what is the United States to do? First, members of the Obama administration must stop the political chest thumping and focus on finding an equitable diplomatic solution. At least for the present, it appears that the president is leaning this direction. As I penned this article, the media was reporting that Obama was softening his tone in an attempt to diffuse the situation with a visibly angered Putin.
Second, Obama should seek bipartisan counsel from Congress. This is needed to help relieve Republican impatience. The president should be allowed adequate time to lead. This crisis has only come to a head since the end of the Sochi Olympics. Republican war hawks, pointing fingers at Obama and making disparaging remarks about his administration’s diplomacy, aren’t helping.
If the president succeeds in calming the Ukraine situation, his argument for diplomacy over military strength will appear more legitimate to worried American voters. If things go badly, then the Democrats will be set up to be swept away in the upcoming midterm elections.
Zachary Hubbard, formerly of Johnstown, is a freelance writer and retired Army officer residing in the Greater Pittsburgh area.