Crimea: Too small to matter
Crimea is permanently lost to Russia.
That is implicit in President Barack Obama’s remarks about where the Ukraine crisis heads next; the terms of the Paris talks between Secretary of State John Kerry and the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and the West’s rejection of military action to hurl back the occupying Russian forces.
That Crimea is gone forever is also the view of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who declared, “I do not believe that Crimea will slip out of Russia’s hand.”
It is now generally accepted in Washington that short of sparking a shooting war, Crimea is lost and will now always be Russian. President Vladimir Putin, presiding over an economy of $2 trillion, barely equal to California, has roundly defeated the United States and the European Union, with a combined worth of more than $34 trillion.
The loss of Crimea is a considerable blow to U.S. prestige and confirmation that Obama holds a weak hand in Ukraine, a country everyone agrees is too hard to defend from Russian aggression. But why has Obama’s response to Russia’s stealth invasion of Crimea been so muted? Where is the simple demand: “Mr. Putin, order your troops out of Crimea”?
Why is keeping Russia out of eastern Ukraine — rather than the swift return of Crimea to Ukraine — not the core of the Paris talks? Why are economic sanctions limited to a small number of Putin cronies and not applied to the entire population?
Why have the Crimeans been sacrificed? One quick answer is that Americans are not prepared to defend them. According to a recent poll, though two-thirds (66 percent) of Americans think the president has not been tough enough with Putin, with just 11 percent thinking he is handling Russia just right, a majority (53 percent) thinks the United States should not counter the threats to Ukraine. Half of Americans believe Crimea can only be wrested from Russia through military force, but there appears no appetite for sending troops, or even military aid, to Ukraine.
There are, however, larger forces at work here. Obama needs Putin’s continuing support in three pivotal geopolitical conflicts. The first is Afghanistan. After 12 years of occupation and 2,211 U.S. lives lost, America is on the point of withdrawing its final 33,000 troops from the country that once harbored the al Qaeda terrorists who attacked America.
The U.S. forces there, and the nascent Afghan security forces, are being and will continue to be supplied from the United States via a long overland route, known as the Northern Distribution Network, through Russia and territories allied to Russia — Belarus, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. To further complicate matters, some important arms contracts to bolster Afghanistan’s frail army against a resurgent Taliban, including a $1 billion contract to buy helicopters, have been placed with Russian companies.
A war between the West and Russia, or even a full-scale sanctions regime, would abruptly cut that essential supply line, putting in jeopardy the fragile achievements of the 12-year Western occupation.
Never mind that if Afghanistan were to return to Taliban rule, it would harbor Islamist terrorists who would try to wrest Islamic Russian republics from the Russian federation. Putin feels that snatching Crimea and invoking the wrath of the West is worth the gamble. He is guessing — correctly thus far — that the United States and the European Union will shrug and do nothing.
Then there are the U.S.-led Western sanctions against the Islamist masters of Iran, who are believed to be seeking to build nuclear weapons and whose constant bellicose threats toward Israel suggest that if they manage to build nukes they will use them on the Jewish state. With Russian help, Iran has been tempted to the negotiating table.
Crimea has put those talks in jeopardy. The Russian deputy foreign minister has made clear that, if the West steps up its sanctions against Russia or Russian individuals to win back Crimea, Russia will withdraw its support for the Iran nuclear disarmament talks and help Iran dodge the tight Western sanctions regime that has forced the mullahs to start talking.
Again, there are many good reasons why it suits Russia to continue with the talks — not least that it does not want a new nuclear power on its southern doorstep. But it appears sentiment rather than realpolitik inspires the Kremlin.
Putin is gambling that Obama is under such domestic pressure to stay out of another war and halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions that Russia can both remain at the Iran talks and keep Crimea. Crimea is therefore the price for trying to disarm Iran.
The third U.S. foreign policy goal Russia is helping with is mediating in the Syrian civil war. After Obama blinked and Congress showed its lack of appetite for intervening militarily in Syria, Putin stepped up and forged a compromise with its longtime ally, in which President Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime would hand over the chemical weapons it had been using to kill its own people.
Since then, though Russia has soft pedaled and allowed Syria to slow the pace of destruction of its poison gas and other weapons of mass destruction, Washington has been beholden to Moscow to keep the program on track. The story of Syrian disarmament so far has been one of deception and delays. But the prospect of Russia withdrawing its support for the United Nations effort and even further bolstering the Syrian regime with arms would be a profound setback for Obama’s efforts to bring peace and stability in the Middle East. Putin thinks the world owes him Crimea for doing the right thing in Syria.
So after 50 years as a province of Ukraine, first under the Soviets then an independent Ukraine, Crimea is once again a part of Russia. Even Putin’s successors will not wish to hand over land that has been such a bone of contention between Russia and the West.
Crimea is the price Putin has put on cooperating with Obama. And he may still demand more. But is the sacrifice of Crimea worth it?
Consider Tibet, an independent nation that the Chinese Communists annexed by force in 1950. For more than 60 years the Tibetan people have been subjugated and their natural resources plundered.
As with Crimea, Tibet was a country too far away and of insufficient importance to be saved from annexation. To have continued to demand the freedom of Tibet would have put at risk the settlement in the East that ended the Korean War, leaving both North Korea and Tibet in China’s grip.
Before long the State Department will come to consider Crimea part of Russia, just as it now considers Tibet part of China. Will the compromise have been worth it?
Perhaps to Americans, weary of conflict and eager to save money on defense. But Ukranians and, over time, the Crimeans, as they come to understand what it is to live in a bankrupt despotism, will not think so.
Abandoning them is not moral and it is certainly not dignified, but Crimea is not so much too big to fail as too small to matter.
Nicholas Wapshott is the author of Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics. Read extracts here.
PHOTO (TOP): A Russian serviceman directs Russian tanks after their arrival in Crimea in the settlement of Gvardeiskoye near the Crimean city of Simferopol, March 31, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer
PHOTO (INSERT 1): Russian President Vladimir Putin smiles during a meeting with CEO of the Siemens AG Joe Kaeser at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, March 26, 2014. REUTERS/Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool
PHOTO (INSERT 2): Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) walks past President Barack Obama (C) during a group photo at the G20 Summit in St. Petersburg, September 6, 2013. At top left is British Prime Minister David Cameron. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque