When Red Army tank divisions crushed the Hungarian freedom fighters in 1956, killing 50,000, Eisenhower did not lift a finger. When Khrushchev built the Berlin Wall, JFK went to Berlin and gave a speech. When Warsaw Pact troops crushed the Prague Spring in 1968, LBJ did nothing. When, Moscow ordered Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski to smash Solidarity, Ronald Reagan refused to put Warsaw in default. These presidents saw no vital U.S. interest imperiled in these Soviet actions, however brutal. They sensed that time was on our side in the Cold War. And history has proven them right.
What is the U.S. vital interest in Crimea? Zero. From Catherine the Great to Khrushchev, the peninsula belonged to Russia. The people of Crimea are 60 percent ethnic Russians. And should Crimea vote to secede from Ukraine, upon what moral ground would we stand to deny them the right, when we bombed Serbia for 78 days to bring about the secession of Kosovo? Across Europe, nations have been breaking apart since the end of the Cold War. Out of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia came 24 nations. Scotland is voting on secession this year. Catalonia may be next.
Yet, today, we have the Wall Street Journal describing Russia’s sending of soldiers to occupy airfields in Ukraine as a “blitzkrieg” that “brings the threat of war to the heart of Europe,” though Crimea is east even of what we used to call Eastern Europe. The Journal wants the aircraft carrier George H. W. Bush sent to the Eastern Mediterranean and warships of the U.S. Sixth Fleet sent into the Black Sea. But why? We have no alliance that mandates our fighting Russia over Crimea. We have no vital interest there. Why send a flotilla other than to act tough, escalate the crisis and risk a clash?
The Washington Post calls Putin’s move a “naked act of armed aggression in the center of Europe.” The Crimea is in the center of Europe? We are paying a price for our failure to teach geography. The Post also urges an ultimatum to Putin: Get out of Crimea, or we impose sanctions that could “sink the Russian financial system.” While we and the EU could cripple Russia’s economy and bring down her banks, is this wise? What if Moscow responds by cutting off credits to Ukraine, calling in Kiev’s debts, refusing to buy her goods and raising the price of oil and gas?
This would leave the EU and us with responsibility for a basket-case nation the size of France and four times as populous as Greece. Are Angela Merkel and the EU ready to take on that load, after bailing out the PIIGS—Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain?
If we push Russia out of the tent, to whom do we think Putin will turn, if not China?
This is not a call to ignore what is going on, but to understand it and act in the long-term interests of the United States. Putin’s actions, though unsettling, are not irrational. After he won the competition for Ukraine to join his customs union, by bumping a timid EU out of the game with $15 billion cash offer plus subsidized oil and gas to Kiev, he saw his victory stolen.
Yet Putin is taking a serious risk. If Russia annexes Crimea, no major nation will recognize it as legitimate, and he could lose the rest of Ukraine forever. Should he slice off and annex eastern Ukraine, he could ignite a civil war and second Cold War. Time is not necessarily on Putin’s side here. John Kerry could be right on that. But as for the hawkish howls, to have Ukraine and Georgia brought into NATO, that would give these nations, deep inside Russia’s space, the kind of war guarantees the Kaiser gave Austria in 1914 and the Brits gave the Polish colonels in March 1939.
Those war guarantees led to two world wars, which historians may yet conclude were the death blows of Western civilization.