Skip to main content

The news of Russian troops in the Crimea should not come as a surprise to anyone. For centuries, the Crimea and the eastern parts of Ukraine have been ethnically and predominantly Russian. The Crimea became Ukrainian when Nikita Khrushchev administratively assigned the territory to the Ukrainian Socialist Republic within the old Soviet Union, and became a part of the modern Ukraine by negotiations during the Soviet breakup despite any natural affinity.

But the world is wondering exactly how to react – is it an invasion of an independent state launched on a pretext of protecting a disadvantaged minority that must be corrected, or is this not the place to draw the line as in Germany's invasion of the Czech Sudetenland in the 1930's? Either way, the results will influence balance of power perceptions for years to come, and for certain, the Chinese will be carefully watching for clues as to how they should manoeuvre in their dispute in the East China Sea.

For Vladimir Putin, the quasi invasion of the Crimea makes strategic sense. At the dissolution of the Soviet Union, tiny geographic outposts remained under Russian control and sovereignty. While negotiations on Ukrainian independence ceded some Russian ships to the nascent Ukrainian Navy, more important was the long-term lease providing a large Russian basing presence in Sevastopol for the Black Sea Fleet, one of Russia's most important naval assets. It is this fleet which gives Russia influence not only in the Black Sea and over its coastal states, but is also the fleet providing Russian presence in the Mediterranean. Recovering this territory and eventual full sovereignty makes eminent sense from a Russian point of view – especially when in its view the Crimea was and is inherently Russian, and that such an important Russian military asset is based there – a fact that many Canadian diplomats in Moscow recognized in the early 1990's as the breakup of the Soviet Union was being negotiated.

However, the world order – in as much as it recognizes minority ethnic groupings – simply doesn't like boundary readjustments by the use of force especially when major powers are involved. Hence the dilemma facing Europe and U.S. President Barack Obama.

Since its independence, Ukraine has been a friction point between East and West, tugged at by Russia and the European Union for economic and political reasons. That has created schisms within the European Ukraine in the West, and the Russian leaning Ukranian states to the east. It was not so long ago, that the Ukraine was being considered for membership in NATO let alone the EU, with all the uneasiness that caused within Ukraine, and equally between Russia, Europe and NATO. Earlier Russian actions in Georgia were manifestations of that tension.

Now that Russian military actions in the Crimea have vapourized all layers of nuance, the West is faced with some critical decisions. Like Saddam Hussein's invasion of his errant Kuwaiti province, the West can militarily respond to expel Russian elements and stabilize Ukraine's borders at the cost of stoking a new Cold War with the prospect of combat between Russian and NATO forces.

To not do so, sets a precedent much like Nazi Germany's invasion of the Sudetenland, where western resolve was demonstrably irresolute. Diplomacy and economic sanctions are of course a preferred and probable option, but any economic sanctions against Russia will have a deleterious effect on EU economies, given their dependence on Russian oil and gas. As such, Europe will huff and puff but at the end of the day will do little and only underline how ineffectual the EU and European NATO have become to strategically influence events, even on their borders.

For Mr. Obama, however, the calculation is far more serious. China is watching carefully and the U.S. reaction will have much to do with how China proceeds in its own territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas. Can China risk establishing a second ADIZ over the South China Sea, buttressing its claims to maritime spaces and islets it considers historically Chinese? Will China envision a contained military response against Japan over the Senkakku/Diaoyou Islands if it feels the U.S. will not tie its own national interest to the sovereignty of the islands – much like what is occurring now in Ukraine.

There are simply few elegant solutions available. Mr. Putin will not leave of his own accord and it is questionable that the Ukrainians or NATO and the EU can make him do so. The best one can hope for is that the Russian military intervention is not simply accepted and diplomacy creates conditions for a Crimean referendum, either on independence or union with Russia and in doing so, apply some de jure modicum of international legitimacy, without de facto reward of Russian actions.

But to do so, will require a far sterner response and a willingness to keep all options on the table, something Canada has already shied away from. The losers of course will be the Ukraine but far more worrying will be the lot of states who have tied their security interests to the West, who must now wonder how secure they really are.

George Petrolekas was an advisor to two Chiefs of Defence Staff and is a co-author of The Strategic Outlook for Canada.