The Crisis That Wasn’t: Putting Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine in Context

After reading an endless array of articles and watching a seemingly endless loop of evening news programs regarding the situation in Ukraine, I have come to the conclusion that we really need to calm down. There is no glaring emergency threatening the global balance of power and no the United States has not lost its mojo so to speak. We in the West might not like Vladimir Putin and we might not like what he has done to suppress political freedom in his own country, we might not like him for his invasion of Georgia, and we might not like him for this perceived power grab in the Ukraine. But as my folks have always told me, sometimes it’s just best to mind your own business.

Some of you might call me an ambivalent soul with no sense of compassion. And to a certain degree, I am not very alarmed about what happens in the Ukraine, in as much that it really isn’t that big of problem to begin with. We must remember, the foreign policy establishment is nothing more than a derivative of the general media. In other words, foreign policy reporters have to write about something. They need to attract readers and the best way to do that is to write either the most sensational or pessimistic piece they can. So if it seems like any kind of foreign policy writing implicating the United States is overwhelmingly negative, then it is for a reason. As a foreign policy wonk myself, I readily admit that we share a certain proclivity for viewing the glass half full. And as such, we have a tendency to consider the absolute worst scenario possible, exaggerating perceived threats to monumental proportions, which is exactly what we are witnessing with regards to the reporting on Ukraine, Syria, Venezuela, and Mexico.

To put things simply, Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine will have little impact on the grand strategic vision of the United States. This is strictly an ethno-cultural conflict in which the United States has zero incentive to be involved. What folks need to understand that where the bulk of Russian forces are presently located, a little slice of Ukraine, known as Crimea, is that it is a place heavily romanticized in Russian history. Its people are historically Russian speaking and likewise consider themselves an extension of the Russian homeland. And please note this is not being forced upon them. Their support of Russia stems from choice and not coercion. It should also be noted that a large portion of Eastern Ukraine is also Russian speaking and likewise has significant pockets of citizens sympathetic to their Russian compatriots. Western Ukraine however is somewhat weary of the Russians and rightfully want to leave the orbit of their Russian overlords.

All points considered, what reason would the United States have to intervene? Why waste precious strategic resources and engage in useless saber rattling when the Black Sea is in Russia’s backyard? Why risk a brief and damaging shooting incident when there is nothing in the Ukraine we need? Sure, the United States considers itself a champion of human rights. But let’s be honest with ourselves. The Russians have acted with a strong degree of restraint. They are not lining people up for execution by firing squad, they are not indiscriminately firing on thousands of innocent civilians, and they are not engaging in a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Stop worrying, everyone, the situation really isn’t that bad. That’s not to say we shouldn’t be concerned. It’s simply saying that the worst possible thing simply isn’t going to happen. As to what the worst possible thing is, I have yet to hear my fellow foreign policy experts articulate what that is.

The Russians, like any global power, have a strategic calculus in which they realize they can only go but so far. They have acted with a shrewd sense of ethno-national politics. Their troops have occupied the one part of the country where the people share a strong affinity for Russia. Putin dares not commit his forces to war with Ukraine due to the fact that the major naval port of Sevastopol is in Ukrainian territory. If Putin were to overstep his bounds then the Ukrainians would certainly aim to sabotage this valuable naval facility. So no, the Russians really can’t do whatever the hell they want. Furthermore, the global drop in oil prices and the impact of sanctions has severely weakened Russia economically. The Russian Bear can only maintain its presence in Ukraine so long as its military adventures can be paid for. I have no idea how long that will be. However, if the devalued ruble is a sign of things to come, Russia may need to rethink how it projects military power in its proverbial back yard.

And for those of you who think the White House overstepped its bounds by making a verbal statement it supposedly can’t back up, consider the following. If the White House said nothing about the situation in Ukraine it still would have been criticized. The White House did however release a statement on the issue, which many have interpreted as an empty threat. But the threat is still vague enough to leave a variety of options open. Nevertheless, we should not spend our time dissecting how the United States will back up its warnings with a tangible show of force. Statements are nothing more than rudimentary instruments of statecraft that are expected to be nothing more than rhetoric. Every country gives statements not because they are going to do anything but simply because it’s expected. As the saying goes, stick and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.

Having been involved in ethno-national disputes in Iraq and Afghanistan for more than a decade, the United States has every right to say that Ukraine is not our problem. It knows how troublesome such conflicts can be and likewise has no desire to be the hamster stuck in the wheel. The Black Sea offers little strategic value to the United States. It does not have the energy resources we need and there is no humanitarian emergency. It seems that foreign policy experts have trouble thinking outside their precious intellectual cocoons or thinking in the shoes of those they daily take rhetorical pot shots at. They seem to think American strategic thinking is aimless when a significant number of these purported experts have no idea as to what really happens behind the scenes. They are not inside the Oval Office every waking moment, they are not working graveyards shifts at Foggy Bottom or the Pentagon, and they sure as hell aren’t the ones making the important decisions. The most us foreign policy wonks can do is pontificate on what little we know, prophecy on worst-case scenarios, and talk about the merits of International Relations theory in a world in which the outcome of global events tends not to follow a straight line.


Categories: Defense, International Affairs, Politics

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