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Should the U.S. go to war with Russia over Ukraine?

After all, do we really favor democracy? And what about self-determination and Hitler?

A Russian serviceman standing guard outside a Ukrainian military base in Perevalnoye, near the Crimean city of Simferopol, on Friday.
REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

Four questions, plus ink-stained wretched tentative answers, about Ukraine:

Would it be worth the United States getting into a war with Russia over Crimea?

The perpetual saber-rattlers — who argue that President Obama should get tougher, do more, draw red lines, do something involving a threat of U.S. military power to back up some kind of demand on Russia to change its course — should answer that question. They seem to believe that if the United States did things like that, bad guys (like Russian President Vladimir Putin) wouldn’t try bad things (like taking over Crimea). Maybe they are right. I think it’s not that simple. But on the slight chance that they might be wrong, they need to acknowledge the possibility that when you threaten to use military force, you are threatening war. And if you threaten war often enough, you are going to get into some. In my lifetime, most of the wars we’ve gotten ourselves into have turned out not to be worth it. Even little ones. But this would theoretically be the first ever war between two nuclear powers.

I think the answer is no, not worth a war with Russia over Crimea. And if it’s not worth a war, it’s smart not to make threats that could move us closer to such a war if the threats don’t work.

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The Obama administration’s tactic to date of threatening (and imposing) various forms of economic and diplomatic consequences is fine with me. They may not work. Very likely, they will not work, if by “work” one means that Crimea is prevented from rejoining Russia. But those kind of measures can certainly a impose a “cost” that can serve as a deterrent to future similar actions.

Does the United States favor democracy?

Even to ask the question may be apostasy. But my answer is that the United States has a strong abstract preference for democracy. In abstract theory, we believe that every country in the world should be ruled with the consent of the governed, as expressed through elections. But in concrete cases, our preference for democracy is strong mostly when it produces pro-American leaders.  Our preference slides rapidly down a sliding scale in countries where we have “vital interests” or “strategic interests” or at least some kind of “interests” (which turns out to be most countries). Then the abstract preference for democracy declines a bit and the concrete preference for leaders who understand and are sensitive to our interests gains strength.

Since rising to superpowerhood, the United States has a long, embarrassing history of long, cozy relationships with kings and dictators. Our country also has a long and even more embarrassing history of overthrowing (or helping or organizing the overthrow of) elected leaders. We’ve just been through a U.S. switcheroo on Egypt from a long alliance with the dictator Hosni Mubarak to mild support for the overthrow of the dictator, to not liking the guy (Mohamed Morsi) who was the first-ever democratically elected leader of Egypt, to mildly endorsing the takeover by the current military dictatorship. In Iran, the U.S. overthrew the only legitimately elected leader ever (Mossadegh), loved the unelected Shah who was a staunch U.S. ally, and despised (it’s mutual) the revolution that overthrew the Shah and turned into the mullahocracy that threw us out. Guatemala, Chile, Nicaragua are three of the most famous Latin American instances where Washington preferred pro-American dictatorships to the available alternatives.

With such a track record, I continue even in my dotage to be impressed with the attraction so many Americans have to the tactic of turning matters such as this into morality tales in which we are so much more sinned against than sinning.

Me, I have no sympathy for the kleptocrat Viktor Yanukovych nor the autocrat Vladimir Putin (who has the obnoxious and not very democratic habit of throwing his critics in prison and whose ridiculous straight-faced and bare-faced lie that the Russian soldiers taking over Crimea were not Russian soldiers demonstrated an impressive level of contempt for maintaining even an appearance of honesty).

But I note that both were elected to their presidencies. No, not in elections up to the standards of freeness and fairness we expect of our own. But after all, outside of North America and Western Europe, there are a relative few that meet that standard. Judged on the curve of relatively fledgling democracies, the “legitimacy” of Putin’s and Yanukovich’s mandates get some kind of mediocre passing grade. At least the United States recognized them as legitimate at the time they were elected.

Then Yanukovich angered several elements of his own population and his allies by deciding to align with Russia on economic matters, when his domestic opponents (and the United States and its allies) preferred that Ukraine align with the European Union. Next thing, riots in the streets, now known as the Euromaidan protests, demanding that Yanukovich reverse his decision or resign. The protesters comprised a coalition of some admirable reformers and some thugs with Nazi sympathies. Of course if it was all about democracy, the proper course for the superpower of democracy would have been to counsel the protesters to stay within the law and, if necessary, wait until the next election and vote Yanukovich out.

Does the United States believe in self-determination?

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The current U.S. outrage is over the idea of allowing the residents of the Ukrainian region of Crimea to decide by referendum (this weekend) whether to remain part of Ukraine or transfer itself to a region of Russia.

It’s not OK that this will occur under Russian military occupation, nor is it OK that (although Russia already has a legal naval base in Crimea) the Russian occupation force appeared (“invaded” would be a defensible word) in Ukraine without the consent of the government of Ukraine (although the precise legitimacy of the Ukrainian government was a bit of a muddle at the time, what with the ousted president taking refuge in Russia).

Under the totality of the circumstances, the referendum on the transfer of Crimea to Russia would probably pass (wink wink) even if it failed. Nonetheless, no one who understands the internal demographics of Ukraine seems to doubt that the referendum will pass with a large genuine majority.

The majority of the Crimean population is Russian by both ethnicity and primary language. The majority of the rest of Ukraine is ethnically and linguistically Ukrainian. In fact, as you have no doubt read, Crimea was legally part of Russia until 1954, the year after Stalin died and Nikita Khrushchev ascended to the Communist Party leadership. Khrushchev, who was ethnically Russian but had risen through the ranks as an official of the Ukrainian Communist Party, changed the border so that Crimea was transferred from Soviet Republic of Russia to the Soviet Republic of the Ukraine.  The citizens of Crimea were not consulted then, nor were they asked which country they wanted their region to be in when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. So the population of Crimea has never had an opportunity to express its wishes on which of the countries it touches should be its national home.

Obama and others argue that the proposed referendum in Crimea to decide whether to leave Ukraine and join Russia would violate the Ukrainian constitution. But the mob action that ran Yanukovich out of the country was not authorized by the constitution either.

Legal arguments aside, Washington’s rejection of the idea of allowing the Crimeans to decide their own fate by majority vote is a fairly serious problem for the nation that claims to want democratic decision-making everywhere.

I am not asserting, by the way, that there ought to be a general understanding that any portion of any country that is unhappy with the country to which it has been attached should be free to vote themselves out any time a regional majority is unhappy. That could be chaos. (Our own Constitution is silent on the subject, which led to a pretty big problem in 1861, although it also left President Abe Lincoln in the awkward position of rejecting the southern states’ acts of secession without anything in the Constitution to base it on.) But secessionism can work out fine. We’ve lived through a great many just since 1990. The Soviet Union broke up in 15 nations. Yugoslavia broke up into seven. The Czechs and Slovaks had an amicable divorce, based on a vote. South Sudan created itself in a much bloodier story, but is now recognized as a separate state and a member of the United Nations.

By the way, I haven’t heard anyone talk about this, but would it be a good idea, assuming the transfer of Crimea comes about, to offer a program of time-limited duration to resettle, in Ukraine, residents of of Crimea that would prefer not to be governed by Russia and to make a similar offer to ethnic Russians living in what remains of Ukraine but who would rather be living under Russian rule. I know it’s hopelessly idealistic. The offer should be time-limited but the terms should be reasonably generous. But would it not be wonderful to be able to say, going forward, and in anticipation future claims that history and politics have trapped people are alien rule, that no, the people in this country are here by choice. Too crazy?

Is Putin Hitler?

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Eventually, as Godwin’s Law long ago reflected, if you talk about something long enough, somebody will be compared to Hitler. Saddam Hussein was the new Hitler, President George W. Bush said in 2002. On this round, Hillary Clinton has made the comparison.

It’s easy to ridicule the overuse of the Hitler analogy. Nobody since Hitler has been fully “like Hitler.” But if we can get past the cheap pleasure of easy mockery, there is a serious question, especially for someone like me who thinks it would not be worth a U.S. war with Russia to prevent the (willing and democratically achieved) transfer of a relative small territory Ukraine to Russia.

But, in the circumstances, it’s reasonable to ask whether allowing Putin to accomplish this territorial expansion without a fight will encourage him to move to his next territorial demand, which might be eastern Ukraine and might happen soon. People who go down this path often argue that it’s better to fight him now than fight him later.

The 1938 “anschluss” merger of Germany and Austria was accomplished after a plebiscite in which the people of Austria agreed to be absorbed. The idea that ethnic Germans in the region of Czechoslovakia (called Sudetenland) were being disrespected was Hitler’s excuse for absorbing that territory, then taking over all of Czechoslovakia — and then more, including Poland and then Ukraine, where the Nazis found a huge portion of their victims, including millions of non-Jewish Ukrainians.

Clinton noted in her analogizing diatribe that Hitler’s early territorial expansions were accomplished partly by arguing that ethnic Germans were being mistreated in foreign lands and that he (Hitler), as the leader and savior of the Germans, was entitled to rescue them even if it meant disrespecting settled borders. Putin, she noted, has asserted a general right to take action when Russians are mistreated. And there are many neighboring states that have significant Russian minorities.

So if Putin is Hitler and Crimea is the Sudetenland, then Obama is Neville Chamberlain and not sending troops into Crimea is appeasement. I’d say she has an analogy that holds a certain amount of water. But, unlike some of the saber-rattlers, she didn’t imply that the United States should take or threaten military action. Here’s what she said:

I just want everybody to have a little historic perspective. I am not making a comparison, certainly. But I am recommending that we perhaps can learn from this tactic that has been used before.

If she becomes an official candidate for president, Clinton should be required to say what she, as commander-in-chief, would have done with this historical perspective.

To me, the other side of the Hitler analogy is the Vietnam analogy. If allowing anything deemed to be against your interest (like the Communist takeover of Vietnam) is appeasement, and appeasement is helping the next Hitler get going, then you have to get into a lot of wars. Wars are easier to get into than out of, even if they start out with euphemistic names likes “incursions” or “police actions.”

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Obama or the next president should certainly be planning out what he or she will do if Putin keeps making excuses to send his military into neighboring states and absorbing territory into Russia. In this matter, Obama is not doing “nothing.” He is attempting, with friends and allies, to use economic and diplomatic pressure to exact a price that will disincentivize Putin from future adventures. Can that work? It probably depends on how much key allies, especially Germany, are willing go along.

Obama is deep into discussions with the emerging new government of Ukraine. Perhaps Ukraine could become a NATO member. Its neighbor Poland is, as are three former Soviet Republics — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The NATO members are pledged to come to one another’s aid if attacked. In the history of NATO, no one has invaded a member-state.