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.