These are the days of our Spring discontent. It is ironic to consider that as events continue to unfold in Crimea the path that might hold the most hope for future peace and stability is the one that guarantees all sides being at least somewhat disappointed. Allow me to elaborate:
Why Ukraine should be disappointed: Crimea is done. As the famous Southern saying in America goes, ‘closing the barn door after the horses have left doesn’t do much good.’ Authorities in Kiev are understandably displeased. They will remain displeased. They must learn to make peace with this defeat. And let’s be honest: it IS a defeat. A relevant piece of territory is now going to be part of the Russian Federation and no longer part of Ukraine. But Russia has the superior military force in Crimea and the Crimean people have voted their own political will in a referendum that supports Russia. And please, no more discussions about its legitimacy. It was unfortunately laughable when the US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power mentioned that such a vote would have to take place across ALL of Ukraine in order to be ‘legitimate.’ If such logic is broken down it means the only way for such initiatives to be acceptable is when the entire state agrees to remove part of itself and give it to another country. This is not how secession usually transpires, anywhere, anytime. If the authorities in Kiev are guilty of anything it’s for not understanding that revolutions do not happen in a vacuum: the assumption that their success in removing Yanukovich would be universally lauded and not considered from the strategic interests of other powers is beyond naïve. Western powers agreed the Maidan revolution was likely to be in their favor (keep in mind this is also an assumption not proven, just view Egypt and the situation of President Morsi for a recent example of a revolution’s unintended consequences and how quickly positive assumptions can turn into negative reality). The Russian Federation could not make such automatic positive assumptions about the Maidan revolution and so it made maneuvers to solidify its interests and future objectives, regardless of those in Kiev or Brussels or Washington. Thus, the Ukrainian disappointment, but it must be accepting if it wants further peace and stability. Any half-measured, ill-conceived attempts to retake Crimea would be counter-productive and potentially dangerous.
Why the United States should be disappointed: Russia outplayed it. Not only did the US not anticipate the initial Russian maneuvers into Crimea, subsequent ‘threats’ and ‘warnings’ from American authorities have not so much fallen on deaf ears as amused ones: when a Presidential aide to Vladimir Putin reacts to sanctions by saying the only thing relevant to him about America are Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg and Jackson Pollock (and he doesn’t need to go to America to enjoy them), then you can rest assured the deterring power of your sanctions have long since ‘jumped the shark’ as we like to say in America. Present efforts to lend support to Poland and the Baltics is not actually about American power preventing further ‘Russian aggression,’ which is the official line in Washington, but is a rather deft maneuver to take attention off of Crimea and move the focus to Eastern Europe. Why would America do this? Because it is an unspoken acceptance of the fact that Crimea is over and the United States lost. If the focus can be moved to Poland and the Baltics, where Russia has no intention of ‘invading,’ then it allows a small face-saving gesture to the United States: it may not have ‘saved’ Crimea, but at least it prevented the conflict spreading to neighboring countries. I have no doubt Russian authorities find this interpretive logic as laughable as the Power comment above, but saving face is also a major element of foreign policy and so hopefully Russia will let it pass. Thus, the American disappointment, but it must be accepting if it wants further peace and stability. Any forced argument that tries to physically eject the Russian military presence in Crimea or tries to undo the Crimean referendum would be counter-productive and potentially dangerous.
Why NATO should be disappointed: who is NATO anyway? These events have only affirmed how lifeless the organization seems to presently be. It really hoped events in Crimea would provide its main members in Western Europe evidence as to its continued value and relevance. But it has been a non-entity as to Ukraine and is now focused on ‘shoring up Eastern Europe and bringing Russian power to heel.’ It is shocking to me just how empty this kind of NATO talk is. It is not so much that Russia outmaneuvered NATO (which it did, going back in this situation all the way to 2008 when it basically put the kibosh on preliminary talks about Ukraine becoming a NATO member). Rather, if you want to know why NATO has no teeth and seems a bit aimless today, then you need to look accusingly at Western Europe, which really didn’t want ‘too much’ of a continued American military influence over the continent once the Soviet Union disappeared. The dominant Western European thinking at the time was that the ‘peace dividend’ of the 1990s basically made NATO superfluous. That is why NATO is a bit like the Emperor has no clothes today. Russian strategic maneuvering in Crimea perhaps flashed a bright light on this reality, but it did not create the reality. Thus, the NATO disappointment, but it must be accepting if it wants further peace and stability. Any explicit initiatives where it tries to actually provoke or incite Russian reaction with hyperbolic posturing would be counter-productive and potentially dangerous.
Why Russia should be disappointed: don’t bite the apple. Attempts at Western posturing and redefining events aside, it is hard to understate just how complete the Russian victory on Crimea has been. Putin followed his own country’s Constitutional protocols, caught potential adversaries completely off-guard in terms of his intentions, efforts to reverse his gains are weak, his maneuvers were ultimately affirmed by the very people of Crimea, and his military forces didn’t suffer a single casualty. In American football terms, this would be a blowout. But despite this complete strategic domination, Russia is best off if it doesn’t bite the apple of political temptation and tries to further capitalize on this victory. One of the key elements of strategic superiority understands when to press forward and when to magnanimously pull back, satisfied with your winnings. This is that time for Russia. It must not give in to the seduction that might be the eastern half of Ukraine or, even worse, affirming Western suspicions about Poland or the Baltics. It is better to have people think you are a menacing militaristic imperialist wanna-be, while doing nothing, than to act and confirm for people their worst suspicions. Thus, the Russian disappointment, but it must be accepting if it wants further peace and stability. Any rash overreaching or impolitic grandstanding that would only portray Russia in an intensified negative light would be counter-productive and potentially dangerous.
And so here we are. As all sides move forward and consider the eternally prophetic Chernyshevsky question, what is to be done, hopefully everyone will heed the argument that sometimes ‘disappointment’ can be the most productive and least dangerous path. At least it is in this case for all the sides mentioned.
Dr. Matthew Crosston is Professor of Political Science and Director of the International Security and Intelligence Studies program at Bellevue University, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”