As we march toward Sunday’s Crimean referendum, the result is predetermined. Crimea will vote Russia, and tensions will only escalate. At this juncture, it’s important to take a step back and ask who “lost” here. What could the United States have done differently? What about Russia? Was the outbreak of violence and explosive geopolitical confrontation inevitable? Where does it go from here?
If the United States’ primary goal has been to keep violence in Ukraine and tensions between outside powers to a minimum, it has made a series of significant missteps. The United States failed to offer real economic support to the Ukrainian government before events reached a crescendo. Former President Viktor Yanukovich didn’t want to just work with the Russians; he was looking to strike a balance between Russia and the EU while skirting economic collapse. Europe pushed too hard, and the IMF wasn’t going to step in in time. The lack of support from the West helped push Yanukovich far enough towards Russia that protests in Kiev reached a point of no return.
On February 21st, key Ukrainian opposition figures and President Yanukovich signed a deal along with a group of European foreign ministers, only for it to soon break down and Yanukovich to flee. The United States eagerly jumped ship with the new pro-West Kiev government. This was a mistake. Washington could have expressed its reservations and urged that the signed deal at least be respected as a factor in determining political processes moving forward. Showing public support for that position would have been an important acknowledgment to Russia that the United States respects Russia’s interests. In Syria six months ago, the United States was perfectly happy to pretend (as were the Russians) that the chemical weapons deal was a breakthrough that would address the underlying conflict, even though it was just a smokescreen for relieving Obama of his obligation to intervene militarily. The Americans could have offered the Russians a similar face-saving gesture here, but they chose not to.
The United States could also have strongly urged Ukraine’s new government to respect legitimate Russian interests in Ukraine, including the adequate inclusion and representation of ethnic Russians in government, and respect for the sanctity of Russia’s lease on its Crimean military base. Instead, the United States offered eager, blanket support for the new West-leaning government.
When it was clear that the Russians were about to go into Crimea, the Obama administration issued a host of largely empty threats, warning that there would be “costs for any military intervention in Ukraine” and that there was a “huge price to pay” if Russia pushed into Crimea. Of course, the United States has the military capacity to contest Russia’s move into Crimea, but Washington was never going to retaliate on such a level — the only response that could realistically stop Russian incursion. These kinds of unenforceable threats only serve to undermine U.S. credibility abroad. And like a red flag to a bull, these comments goaded Putin on; there was no credible “or else” from Washington that could come close to matching Putin’s resolve in Ukraine. Beyond his country’s borders, Putin’s single biggest priority is retaining influence in Ukraine.
But while the United States has clearly missed its chance to circumvent the escalating tensions that we see today, the stakes for Russia are exponentially higher, and Russia stands to lose vastly more over Ukraine.
Just look at the immediate costs of the Crimean invasion, which didn’t even make Putin blink. After the military incursion, the Russian ruble went into free fall, forcing Russia to implement a significant interest rate hike. The Russian stock market’s one-day losses exceeded the costs of the bloated Sochi Olympics.
Such actions will only hasten the slow, but steady economic decline that we see in Russia. It is an economy with a tremendous over-reliance on energy, and it has been using its natural resources as a crutch. In 2007, Russia needed a Brent oil price of $34 per barrel to balance its federal budget. By 2012, that target had climbed to $117. Last year, oil and gas accounted for more than two-thirds of Russia’s export revenue.
If a “win” for Putin means expanded influence in Ukraine, then his strategy has backfired royally. Just three months ago, he had the ear of a Russia-leaning Ukrainian government. Today, he has…Crimea. But by annexing Crimea, its 1.5 million pro-Russian voters would no longer be a part of the Ukrainian electorate. The remaining Ukrainian voters will remember images of Russian troops on their soil when they next take to the polls. All of this means that Ukrainian elections are more likely to turn pro-West, leading to the prospects of EU Customs Union integration and eventual European Union membership. That is, if we can get that far.
But this is an enormous if — and it reveals who will likely lose the most.
First of all, if Russia sends its forces into Eastern Ukraine — a distinct possibility — everybody loses. We could see the outbreak of a Ukrainian civil war, crippling market volatility, extreme geopolitical shock, and unforeseeable consequences. Events to date have brought us to a point where this is a frighteningly realistic outcome that cannot be ruled out.
But even if Russia doesn’t push further, there is no good outcome for the Ukrainian people for a long time to come. In the best case, they get cash for debt, but the Russians will no longer subsidize their gas. The economy will remain a wreck, and Ukraine’s new president will see a continued need to tack to Russia for economic reasons — but that strategy will become even more politically untenable. In short, Ukraine ends up back in the same stew — but it boils even hotter.
That scenario assumes ongoing economic and diplomatic support from the West. It wasn’t until the crisis truly erupted that the West began to open its pocketbook. What happens when the next global tension flares and the international media’s attention shifts? Will Western diplomatic efforts shift with it? Are the United States and Europe prepared to backstop a Ukrainian economy in free-fall when they have pressing economic concerns back home?
The Ukrainian people have lost the most, and have the most yet to lose. Discussions of America’s blunders should be framed in this context. Of course, it’s not inevitable: with tremendous, sustained outside support, there is a chance for a Ukrainian win over time. Unfortunately, that chance is far too slim.