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

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

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.

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?

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?

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.”

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.

Comments (30)

  1. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 03/14/2014 - 10:10 am.

    Red Lines

    In part, this crisis comes from Obama’s fumbling on Syria. That was a big signal to the world that the US could be counted for tough talk but then bought off with obviously false promises. Lesson learned.
    I’m not wanting to get into a shooting war with Russia either but I wonder what some fairly heavy economic threats would have done a week or two ago, before Russia had boots on the ground. If Obama had threatened to expand energy exports to Europe and offer aid and technology to Russian opponents, I wonder if Putin would have backed off.

    I can’t see how any election in Crimea could possibly be legitimate while Russian troops are all over it. Withdraw the troops and then set a date for referendum. I don’t see how the US could possibly one otherwise.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/14/2014 - 12:21 pm.

      No, not Obama’s fault

      I don’t think this one can be laid at President Obama’s feet. What would the strongest, most bellicose President have done? Would (say) President Reagan have gone to war to preserve Crimea as a part of the Ukraine?

      Fairly heavy economic threats would have done little, if any, good. The US is a relatively minor trading partner with Russia. Its trade with the EU is much larger, but any sanctions would fall more heavily on the EU than on Russia. Expanding energy exports to Europe is not something that could realistically happen for five to ten years, so there is no leverage there. Offering “aid and technology” to Russian opponents is something that could easily backfire. Putin would probably see it as ineffectual against the military and geographic advantages he has, but he could easily spin it as a US attempt to escalate the situation.

      I agree that the plebiscite on Crimea joining Russia is illegitimate as constituted.

      • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 03/14/2014 - 08:33 pm.

        A Stronger President

        What would a stronger President have done? The first thing that a stronger President would do would be to lay the groundwork for opposition in these cases. In Syria’s case that should have happened right after Obama laid down his red line. He should have worked with our allies so that everything would have been prepared once that line was crossed.
        The case in Ukraine is more difficult because Russia is obviously a stronger foe. Again though, some groundwork should have been laid. The Obama administration was caught completely unprepared and that’s a bit shameful. Some preparation would include sharing some energy technology with Eastern Europe. It’s my understanding that fracking would help them break their dependence on Russian gas. We have plenty of expertise there. We could be exporting more energy to them. We could be building up missile shields. We could loudly station troops in places like Poland. There are lots of little things we could do that wouldn’t involve actual war.
        If Putin wants Crimea, he can take it. But there has to be a price and right now he’s not paying one. A better leader would have been more ready to exact one.

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/15/2014 - 10:43 am.


          Outside of science fiction, ‘missile shields’ don’t work.
          Every time the military has tested them, they’ve proved porous.
          Remember, a missile shield can’t be 90% effective.
          When we’re talking about thermonuclear weapons, even one getting through is a disaster, and we’re no where near that level of performance.

          As for ‘shipping energy’ (actually one ships the raw materials which can be converted to energy), our main surplus fuel right now is natural gas. To be shipped beyond pipeline distance, it must be liquified. The first liquification plant is currently under construction.

          As for stationing troops in Poland, that might just bring back some bad memories for the Poles (or don’t they get a say in it?).

          As for Syria, there’s a good reason why Congress and the President decided not to intervene. First of all, it’s a sovereign state. Second, it’s small and densely populated; we could not destroy its military capability without a lot of collateral damage (trans: killing civilians). We would have to invade and occupy it. If we did that to every nation that mistreated its citizens, we’d be occupying most of Africa.

          The real world just doesn’t have easy fixes at the rattle of a saber.

          • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 03/16/2014 - 07:48 am.


            I’m right with you on why we didn’t attack Syria. You’re absolutely right that it would have been difficult logistically and it was hard to see how we could make a positive difference. The key thing is that after Obama put down his ‘red line’, he put an obligation down. At the very least he should have spent the following months talking to the international community as to what consequences would happen if/when that line was crossed. Whether that meant pure sanctions or some other response, there should have been some kind of conceptual framework in place. There wasn’t and the entire episode made the US look like it would do nothing more than talk.
            Virtually the same script has played out when it comes to Russian expansion.
            It seems as if the Obama administration doesn’t really believe that horrible things can happen. Obama wouldn’t do these things. The other people in his late night college bull sessions wouldn’t do these things. In fact, even the threat of international condemnation would be enough to make them turn away. Somehow he can’t get his mind around the idea that Putin and other dictators simply play by a different set of rules.

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/15/2014 - 01:14 pm.

          And as Eric pointed out

          Poland is a member of NATO.
          If Poland were attacked we are obligated by treaty to defend it.
          However, Poland is on the border of western Ukraine, while the Russians are threatening Ukraine from the East.

          And if you want a precedent to think about:
          We have troops just south of the 38th parallel in South Korea.
          Has this had any impact on North Korea?
          If they weren’t there, maybe NK would be firing off nuclear intercontinental missiles.
          Oh, yeah ….

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/14/2014 - 01:15 pm.

      Yes, a good ass-kicking of some-one, any-one in Syria would have convinced Russia to allow their strategically valuable warm-water port to turn over to a NATO leaning country. And it certainly would guarantee that we would get the American-loving crowd in power in Syria, doncha’ know?

      And from the other viewpoint, if Russia had sent bombers over Syria would we give Guantanamo to Cuba without a peep of protest?

      And, by the way, have you looked around the map of the Mediterranean and seen that Syria is the only possible alternate port for the Russians IF the Black Sea access and the Crimean port is closed? In fact, the weaker the pro-Russian Syrian government becomes, the more critical the Crimean base becomes for the Russians. If we bombed gthe Syrian government we would have made sure that the Russians would, with no niceties, invade Crimea.

      This is a really big issue for the Russians, and even more so because of the danger to the Syrian government.

      • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/14/2014 - 10:15 pm.

        More succinctly…It is

        More succinctly…

        It is precisely because the Russian base in Syria is threatened by the potential collapse of the Syrian government that the Russians will take Crimea and hold its base there.

        It’s their only option for a warm-water naval base.

    • Submitted by Sean Huntley on 03/14/2014 - 01:51 pm.

      So what fumbling of George W Bush’s encouraged Putin to invade Georgia?

  2. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 03/14/2014 - 10:58 am.


    One question. Who is advocating war?

    • Submitted by rolf westgard on 03/14/2014 - 02:26 pm.

      Advocating war

      My impression is that Condi Rice and several Republican Senators are ready to go over the top, and lead the charge to Moscow. I’ll stay in the back.

  3. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/14/2014 - 11:18 am.

    The issue of the current time is whether people are becoming ungovernable in countries where there is a range of views and ethnicity.

    Is it as simple as the “me generation” not being able to tolerate decisions, however democratically directed, different than what they want?

    Or is it the complicated factors of media, popularity, power and wealth that turn democracies into defacto plutocracies bent on directing the “people power” of the democratic function to their own aims?

    Or is it that the limitless wants that are created by the world-wide saturation of the consumer culture that cannot help be disappointed in that the consumer culture always depends on a low cost producer somewhere that can be delivered to a wealthier consumer?

    Look around the world-Venezuela, Ukraine, Greece, Syria, Egypt, Libya and more. All people who want a say in their government and all spinning apart from the inability to agree on a direction.

    And the US is moving into that direction also–where compromise between different world-views are becoming less possible.

    Self-determination is good, but in the present day the circumstances mentioned above are leading division back down the the tribal level. How does a modern state exist when riven by tribal level loyalties?

    With Ukraine–Putin is a modern man who wants to emulate the old style tyrant. I’m not really sure where the Putin popularity comes from in a country of declining freedoms and a vigorous kleptocracy. Putin is not Hitler, though-he’s a leader that sees one of his most valuable military assets (Black Sea port) being swallowed by a western-leaning country.

    This is to be contrasted with the rest of Ukraine (and Europe) that will be in the foreseeable future that will naturally be under the more-diffuse but ever-present energy monopoly that Russia has on eastern Europe.

    As for going to war with Russia–the insanity of that idea is clear. We are tired of war. The Russians are tired of war. The Cossacks and Serbs being trucked into Crimea may be fire-breathing war-baiters, but there is no distinct desire for war among the super-powers.

    Last night, I watched a report where old Serbian militias set up a road check point between the two largest Crimean cities. Serbian militias?!?! In Crimea!?! Well-uniformed and well-armed, in support of the Russian goals. There are many among the Cossacks and Serbs and Russians from Russia that are there that will try to provoke a battle.

    In my opinion, the Russians may have lit a fuse that will lead to ethnic cleansing of the Crimean peninsula by the less restrained elements, regardless of the outcome of the bogus referendum (which due to its nature exclusively will result in a call for Russia to take over).

    Like most modern problems, there are no easy or clear-cut answers. That only existed in the days of the British empire where the only news reported was filed via a written dispatch brought back by boat and train to the Sunday Times. The US jumping in the middle of a European problem is not possible or reasonable at this time.

  4. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/14/2014 - 11:20 am.


    Ukraine were a member of NATO the situation would be clear cut: we (and the Europeans) would be obligated by a signed treaty to go to war to defend a member state if it were attacked. However, Ukraine is not a member of NATO, and declaring it a member when it does not have a clearly legitimate government representing it would not be a good strategy.

    The analogies to Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union are also limited. Both were clearly confederations composed of individual member states with long histories of independent existence; natural lines of fracture if you wish.
    Ukraine, on the other hand, has a long history of unitary existence as a component of various Russian empires, but not of independent existence. And the language issue has been overstated. Both Ukrainian and Russian are Slavic languages, and most Ukrainians speak both. Bilingual conversations are frequent.

    Comparing the advantages of the Russian Federation and the United States in this situation:
    On the military level, we and the Russians have roughly equal military capabilities (certainly equally matched on the ultimate nuclear deterrent). An air war like we fought in Kosovo would not be a good idea.
    Russia has a huge supply line advantage; we would have to supply our forces through Poland. Imagine if we invaded Mexico or Venezuela. Do you think that the Russians would try to intervene? It’s a losing situation.

    On the other hand, or population is more than twice that of Russia (that’s why Russia is trying to rebuild the Russian Empire) and our economy is far larger.
    Some comparison of GDP’s:
    1 United States 16,240,675
    2 European Union 15,540,691
    3 China 7,298,147
    4 Japan 5,866,540
    5 Germany 3,167,364
    6 France 2,238,310
    7 Brazil 2,330,085
    8 United Kingdom 2,313,907
    9 Russia 1,954,401
    10 Italy 1,813,732
    So you can see that the Russian economy is less than one eighth the size of ours or Europe’s, so that’s the hill we should fight on.
    Right now Russia is riding a natural gas boom, but in a few years, when our natural gas liquification plants (presently under construction) come on line we will be able to replace Russia as Europe’s main energy supplier.
    Putin is riding a bubble; in a few years he will lose what economic leverage he has.

    As for the Hitler analogy, the most valid point is that both Germany and Russia were/are both interested primarily in expanding within contiguous borders. The United States at the time had a very strongly isolationist sentiment (read about FDR’s efforts to get us into the war). Germany was the industrial equal of France and Britain, and their military superior at the start of the war. It could reasonably hope to end it before we could become involved.

    Now, on the other hand, we may be war weary, but we have strong armed forces, and more combat veterans than Russia. No Anschluss.

    So, economic sanctions, while not necessarily as quick, are our best bet as a primary lever.
    Of course we should (and are) give Ukraine direct economic support.
    But Russia is most likely to stop with a partition of Ukraine rather than get involved in a war with Western Ukraine. It certainly would not go on the invade Poland and rebuild the for Soviet Union’s Eastern European empire. That would involve a direct conflict with Europe and cost Russia far too much economically for far too little likely gain.

  5. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/14/2014 - 11:30 am.

    Ethnic cleansing

    “….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.”

    This sounds suspiciously like ethnic cleansing.
    Beyond that, who would finance it?
    Resettling people under conditions that they would accept voluntarily would be hugely expensive, and I suspect that most people would prefer to remain in the communities with which they are familiar, rather than relocate among strangers, even ones who spoke their language.

    This sounds suspiciously like the Middle Eastern situation.
    We’ve seen how that ends up.

  6. Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 03/14/2014 - 11:30 am.


    We have our own problems with our 700+ military ‘bases’ in foreign countries……many of whom do not want us there. Stop catering to the Military/Industrial types.

  7. Submitted by Robert Franklin on 03/14/2014 - 11:37 am.


    Does the United States believe in democracy? A better question: Does the United States believe in freedom. A good place to start: FDR;s “four essential human freedoms” – freedom of expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear “everywhere in the world.” The rocky road to democracy and self-determination too often have obstructed those freedoms in such places as Egypt, Pakistan, Iraq, etc., etc. So it behooves us to pick our fights more carefully than merely advocating democracy.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 03/14/2014 - 01:17 pm.

      FDR was wrong

      We have no constitutionally protected “freedom from want” or “freedom from fear” nor should they be considered any “essential human freedom” as FDR’s leftist speechwriter suggested since they are too ambiguous and could be used by any politician to justify his agenda.

      And democracy is no guarantee of freedom. People in Cuba can vote too. The only criteria should be whether or not we have a treaty obligation to defend them if they are attacked and we have no such treaty with Ukraine.

      The End

  8. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/14/2014 - 12:41 pm.

    What vital U.S. interest would be served?

    This is a fine column, laying out some of the philosophical and diplomatic background. For what little it’s worth, and long before I reached the column’s second paragraph, my own answer is “no,” primarily because I see no satisfactory answer to my own rhetorical question in the subject line. As for the saber-rattlers, when they’re offering up themselves and/or their own children as “volunteers” to serve the political and diplomatic ends they espouse, only then will they have some credibility in this household. That is, unless there’s a satisfactory answer to my own question of what, exactly we hope to accomplish, and why.

    Our diplomatic and military history since 1945 is a checkered one, at best, and if we leave out Korea in the early 1950s, it’s mostly a story of quagmires and losses. If we don’t like the way the Russians impose their idea of hegemony, we can make that plain, and even somewhat painful for them, through diplomatic and economic sanctions, or some other combination of economic and diplomatic consequences. Otherwise, what I’m mostly hearing from the saber-rattling contingent is a variation on “Let’s you and him fight.”

    I think Eric is on the mark about our preference for democracy in the abstract, much less than that in reality. The historical record is not at all kind to the U.S. in this regard. Our own citizens may be inclined to be charitable regarding excuses from Washington explaining why our sons or daughters need to die in some faraway place, but elsewhere in the world, including among our allies, our track record in this regard is not viewed so benignly. If we value democracy as we say we do, then we have to be willing to accept and live with the results, including results that do not at all please us. To do less is merely to practice the same sort of hypocrisy on the international stage that we ourselves find so annoying in Congress and on the domestic front.

    In similar fashion, we talk a good game about self-determination, but don’t always act on that same basis. The response from Washington – so far – to ethnic Russians wanting to be part of Russia is not the sort that will inspire confidence in other populations that feel oppressed. That said, I share Eric’s reservation(s) about any group that’s unhappy ought to be able to secede. It didn’t work out so well for the Confederate states in the mid-19th century (and a good thing, that, in my view). The northeast quarter of Colorado made noises to the effect that it would secede from the rest of the state in the last election, but voters turned out to be at least a little more sensible than the firebrands on election day. I suspect there might be a few Indians in the state who have views on self-determination that might be a little outside the mainstream, as well.

    Beyond that, there is surely a point at which “self-determination” slides over some blurry, invisible line and becomes – in a democratic setting, at least – little more than sour grapes. “We got outvoted, but rather than accept the outcome of a democratic election, we’re going to pick up our marbles and found our own state/nation/region.” Reality on the ground is, I’d argue, almost always more complicated than someone’s tidy little theory about why population ‘x’ should do this or that.

    I’m not persuaded – yet – by the appeasement argument. Yes, it holds, as Eric suggests, “a certain amount of water,” but that amount looks to these eyes to be pretty small. That’s not to dismiss the argument altogether, but Eric’s “Vietnam” point is well-taken. If allowing almost anything deemed (by whom? and why?) to be against our interests is appeasement, then we’re going to end up in a lot of wars. Not only are they easier to get into than they are to get out of, the *very* relevant question that accompanies that stance is whether or not we – ordinary, non-combat citizens – want to live in a society that’s essentially permanently militarized. What I see in that scenario is more than just a suggestion of George Orwell’s “1984.”

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/14/2014 - 03:18 pm.


      is a good illustration of the dangers of getting involved in someone else’s civil war because of a perceived self interest. In that case, it was the glimmer of oil in the South China Sea.
      To push the point, Syria is also a civil war with its government on one side. As in most wars, both sides are getting some aid from outside (Assad from the Russians; the opposition from various Islamic factions). It’s also a no winner for us.
      Korea was technically a police action taken by the U.N. (tell that to the American soldiers who died there). I’m not sure that we gained there in the long run, since we locked in the status of the North as an independent nation. If we had stayed out and the North had won it might well have ended up like Vietnam, with the ‘losing’ side absorbing the winners and ending up as our allies!

  9. Submitted by Rosalind Kohls on 03/14/2014 - 02:43 pm.

    not 2 choices

    This article seems to be saying we have only two choices, war and not war.
    There are several things that the US can do. We can punish Russia economically. Most of its income comes from energy. We can ramp up our energy production to undercut the Russians’ market. There are many economic sanctions we can impose even if the rest of Europe doesn’t go along. Many of the Russian leaders take luxury vacations in the US. We can take away their visas. I’ll bet a lot of them have money in US banks, too. We can make it difficult if not impossible to access that money.
    Obama and Congress should get off their butts and get busy.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/14/2014 - 05:16 pm.

      Ramping it up

      Russia is the largest oil exporter in the world, accounting for more than a tenth of the global output. Assuming US oil exports could be increased to make a dent in that figure, it would take years to develop the infrastructure to ship the oil anywhere. Russia is able to supply Europe because it can send oil and gas via pipelines. The US would need to develop not just pipelines, but shipping terminals and a large fleet of tankers to handle the exports.

      The US is a small trading partner of Russia, so if Europe did not go along, sanctions are not going to matter much. In any event, the EU is moving towards sanctions, which probably will prove more effective than anything the US could do alone.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/15/2014 - 01:18 pm.

      This is already

      being done.

  10. Submitted by Rosalind Kohls on 03/14/2014 - 03:05 pm.

    correction on 2 choices

    The two choices suggested seem to be war and do nothing, not war and no war. (This is what happens when you write in a hurry!)

  11. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 03/14/2014 - 07:02 pm.

    War over the Crimea?

    Did someone punch the wayback machine to 1856?

    Let’s get the US out of all this “Great Game” stuff and make fixing all the problems that exist in this country a priority. When we put the bankers responsible for the financial meltdown in 2008 in prison, stop murdering families celebrating weddings by drone, end mass surveillance of e-mails and cell phone calls and fix our election system to end the corruption of money, then maybe we can begin to lecture other countries about “human rights” and “freedom.” Until then, I say: “physician, heal thyself!”

    • Submitted by Richard Steuland on 03/17/2014 - 09:45 pm.

      Those who live in glass houses

      How easily this nation has justified its annexation of Mexico,Alaska,Hawaii, and the entire landmass of that which we call America. Yes, we should tend to business at home. Prospering the defense companies while cutting vital human services is criminal.

  12. Submitted by Donald Larsson on 03/14/2014 - 11:42 pm.

    A few more reminders and a correction

    It was a different world back then, but both Eisenhower and Nixon kept the U.S. out of direct involvement with the U.S.S.R.’s put-down of revolts in “satellite” states (Hungary–1956; Czechoslovakia–1968, among others) on the de facto presumption that they fell within the Soviet “sphere of influence.” In the meantime, the two superpowers resorted to proxy wars in other parts of the world since a direct confrontation risked all-out nuclear war. However, Eric’s history slips on the Austrian anschulss. The Austrian government (fascist in nature but anti-German Nazi) did schedule a plebescite on joining with Germany for March 13, 1938. Hitler chose not to wait and sent his troops across the border on March 12 (with apparently plenty of support from pro-Nazi groups and individuals–the swastika flags were all ready to be hung out of windows immediately). A new plebescite to endorse the take-over was scheduled for April 10. Strangely enough, that vote passed by more than 99%. Those who disapproved disappeared–either escaping abroad or being taken away.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/15/2014 - 10:48 am.


      But Eisenhower and Nixon weren’t REAL Republicans.

      As someone pointed out, we were indirectly defending the Monroe Doctrine.
      This was dramatically shown in the Cuban missile affair, where it was easy enough to eject the Soviet Union from OUR sphere of influence.

  13. Submitted by Tom Karas on 03/15/2014 - 11:57 am.

    no worries, not enough oil there

    Maybe NATO will create a unilateral action of its members. But there is obviously not enough oil or other resource for the US to jump in on its own like Iraq or Afganistan. If there were enough fossil fuels to fuss over, the industry owned politicians would be rattling many more sabres.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/17/2014 - 09:41 am.

      Plenty of oil in Ukraine

      If the multinationals are worried about anything, it’s too much gas and oil flooding the market and driving prices down.
      So far we’ve had a (sort of informal) cartel with the Saudis and their friends limiting supply to maintain price levels. The Russians are threatening to break this.
      The problem is whether Ukraine becomes part of the New Russian Empire or maintains some sort of independence. there will be a lot of gas and oil flooding the market. Either way ‘we’ lose.

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