When we last left off, Russia had just annexed the sovereign territory of Ukraine while the rest of the world was still waking up, shaking off their hangover and trying to piece together what happened last night.
But Russia wasn’t finished with its former territory just yet. Shortly after the Russian annexation of Crimea, protesters loyal to Moscow started holding demonstrations in several cities in eastern Ukraine. At first they appeared to just be local citizens demanding greater autonomy from Kiev. However, the demonstrators quickly evolved into armed militias who occupied government buildings and Ukrainian military barracks in the region. Upon closer inspection (and with the help of some top-notch investigative journalism by the New York Times http://nyti.ms/PlveQt) it was determined that these “protesters” were in fact Russian special forces known as “green men” whose job it was to incite these protests. To exacerbate the situation, Russian nationals were spilling over the Ukrainian border to further fuel these protests.
All the while Putin had parked roughly 40,000 Russian troops on the border with Ukraine to conduct “training exercises” while warning that Russia had the right to intervene militarily to protect ethnic Russians from a violent crackdown by the Ukrainian authorities. A crackdown that they were asking for when they put armed Russians in eastern Ukraine.
Now Ukraine was stuck in a tough situation. If it didn’t intervene to stop these protesters, they would keep taking over administrative buildings and arming themselves with weapons stolen from the barracks, slowly eroding Ukraine’s ability to govern its eastern region. However, if Ukraine did intervene, they ran the risk of giving Russia an excuse to invade. So they did the only thing they could do: they turned to the international community for help.
The United States and its European allies agreed to sanction the activities of specific Russian citizens after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. And though the list has been expanded since the first round of sanctions were implemented, to this date, more stringent sanctions have not been imposed. Which leads to an interesting question: what can the United States and the global community do about the annexation of Crimea and assorted Russian aggression?
Well if you listen to Rick Santorum, who says we should get “tough with the Russians” and “defend [Ukraine’s] territorial integrity”, it sounds like we should solve things the good o’l fashion American way and bomb whatever the hell is pissing us off. Unfortunately, in this case, the offending piss-offer also happens to have the largest nuclear arsenal in the world, which could lead to a few problems- like, oh I don’t know, nuclear war.
So since engaging in a turf war over land that isn’t really our turf isn’t an option, what’s the next best thing? An idea that has been gaining some traction in Congress is a package to arm the Ukrainian military to help them fight the Russians: because unilaterally arming a weaker power to defend their homeland and fight the Russians has never come back to bite us in the ass.
In all seriousness, the most pressing concern is that if we arm the Ukrainians, how can we guarantee those weapons won’t fall into the hands of the Russian Arm- I mean the armed protesters they are fighting? Just a few weeks back, an elite Ukrainian armor division was captured by these Russian “green men” who took their tanks and started doing donuts in a parking lot with them.
That leads us back to economic sanctions. So why haven’t the sanctions been harsher? First of all, US trade with Russia is not significant enough for unilateral sanctions by the United States against Russia to make much sense. To sanction Russia we require European help, but our European allies rely significantly on trade from Russia. Granted, the trade disparity is in Europe’s favor, and Russia would stand to lose much more from such sanctions, no country would willingly bring the economic downturn that sanctions or an embargo with Russia would cause. Also, a good amount of Eastern Europe gets its natural gas from the state-owned Russian energy company Gazprom who could very easily renegotiate prices in the wake of European sanctions on Russia.
So we can’t bomb them, we can’t arm people against them, and we can’t put in place tough enough sanctions: what should we do to stop them? My opinion: nothing. The Russian economy is still struggling to recover from the global downturn in 2008. Once Russia is done rallying around the flag and being patriotic Russians about this whole endeavor, the sobering economic reality is going to kick in. War is bad for business. In fact the Russian stock market took a pretty serious hit when the news about Crimea broke, and “fell off a cliff” after the Ukrainian election this week according to Forbes. Our best bet is to let the international markets decide that Russia is just too volatile for investment and let the economic weight of that force Russia to the negotiating table.
At with respect to the influence of Russia through Gazprom, with the development of new methods of obtaining previously inaccessible natural gas, such as fracking, it seems that the global price of natural gas will be driven down. Ultimately, with the implementation of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) tankers, it is conceivable that the US could replace Russia as the long term energy provider of Europe. And even currently, European demand for Russian natural gas is diminishing as countries start to develop their own drilling infrastructure. So all things considered, it would appear that Russia’s energy dominance over Europe seems to be on the wane.
Finally, recent elections in Ukraine were widely regarded as a success. Even Putin seemed willing to acknowledge the legitimacy of newly elected president Petro Poroshenko which further signals that a solution may be on the horizon.