Notes on Ukraine

Joshua Tucker provides “5 reasons for everyone to calm down about Crimea.” These amount to arguments for why invading Ukraine would undermine Russian interests. In some respects, I think he misses the point. We are currently witnessing a massive coercive-diplomacy effort by Russia with no obvious purpose except altering the facts on the ground in Crimea. This effort quite likely includes moving troops outside of Russian bases under the cloak of (im)plausible deniability offered by unmarked uniforms. Even in the absence of an overt display of force, we are talking about serious steps being taken by one sovereign state against another.

Of course, there isn’t much that the United States, NATO, and the European Union can do by way of a military response that passes the prudence test. The Ukraine–let alone the status of the Crimea–simply isn’t worth a military confrontation with  the Russian Federation. Moreover, the Russians know this. That’s not a recipe for making credible threats of force.

But it doesn’t follow that the US and the EU are impotent. Obama’s warnings recalls those issued by US and European leaders during the 2008 Russia-Georgia war. These likely impacted Russian calculations. And, in that conflict, Georgia was almost certainly the proximate instigator of hostilities. So far, the regime in Kiev, aware of the precedent, seems reluctant to let Moscow bait it into starting a war.

Regardless, I don’t entirely agree with Tucker’s reasoning. It isn’t that he’s wrong, per se. Moscow has good reasons to avoid conflict. But the long road of prognostication past runs through the graveyard of “objective regime interests that preclude what looks like a very bad foreign-policy decision.” For a good example of why not to bank on that kind of reasoning, see “Iraq, US invasion of.”

What concerns me the most is something that I’ve already suggested: Moscow’s actions seem completely inconsistent with any objectives that would allow for a return to the status-quo ante of 23 February. Moscow might be seeking a change in the status of Crimea, hoping to collapse the new regime, encouraging instability, or some combination thereof. Perhaps Moscow aims to transform Crimea into a a kind of frozen conflict. After all, Moscow has long leveraged secessions–and threats of secession–to coerce policy compliance from recalcitrant regimes in its putative “sphere of privileged influence.” On a side note, someone should write a book on Russia’s limited power-political repertoire.

Even if Putin has less expansive objectives in mind, what’s happened so far is very serious business indeed.


  1. I wrote a post last night with some similar points to Tucker’s. I read his somewhat ruefully this afternoon. I suspect he wrote this post when the situation was more ambiguous, as I did mine.

    Putin can be very tactical; if he were strategic, he would be considering Tucker’s and my caveats more carefully. Or perhaps, as you say, he has another strategy in mind. I guess we’ll see.

  2. I think this – “Moscow’s actions seem completely inconsistent with any objectives that would allow for a return to the status-quo ante of 23 February” – is the most important point, and I agree. Putin is playing very hard and pushing way more than I think most people expected. As you say, it is hard to imagine going back to some kind stable or tranquil relationship. Is this really what Putin wants? Regular hostility from a large clutch of wealthy states along his western border for years? I find that amazing; it seems oo reckless. But it seems like that is where this is going…

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