The Crimean peninsula: Pragmatism vs. Ideological Preference

Garrett Teets, Contributing Writer

In the midst of the recent turmoil in the Crimean peninsula and the Ukraine proper, it would seem prudent to illuminate the situation to allow our fellow students with an interest in great power politics to more fully appreciate the motives of both the United States and the Russian Federation, concerning their actions and motivations regarding the crisis.

Ukraine is a state sharing a unique history with Russia, as well as pervasive linguistic and cultural ties. The epicenter of the first eastern Slavic state and subjected to the control of the Russian empire in 1783, the territory of the Ukraine and in particular the Crimean peninsula have never been periphery concerns to Moscow.

Following the flight of former President Yanukovych in late February of this year, the Russian federation conducted a clandestine operation to seize the Crimean peninsula beginning on March 1, claiming to act in the interest of ethnic Russians residing on the Peninsula. It should be noted that in light of the decidedly pro-western stance of the interim government, it is likely that the true motivations for this intervention were to: secure the Russian naval base at Sevastopol, and destabilize the new government in Kiev to the maximum extent possible without provoking further crisis.

Regarding these motivations, ensuring the security of the naval installation at Sevastopol makes a great deal of geostrategic sense. The loss of this installation would make Russian naval operations in the Black sea infinitely more difficult, as well as severely hamper the Russian ability to project power from the Black sea against other states in the region. Taking a larger view of the geopolitical/geostrategic situation, the loss of the Sevastopol installation would further degrade the Russian position relative to NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), and serve to undermine Vladimir Putin’s nationalist credentials at home. It is worth noting that the Ukraine, even after the election of Petro Poroshenko on May 25, seem to have abandoned the peninsula to Russian influence and the recently established pro-Russian local government even as the newly elected leadership continues its efforts to quell unrest in the eastern territories.

In response to these Russian actions, a flurry of high level meetings have taken place between American policy makers and the representatives of Ukraine and several NATO member states. Steps have been taken by Washington to reassure NATO allies such as the aforementioned consultations and the deployment of additional American military assets to Eastern European NATO members in the form of F-16s and a small number of supplementary infantry units.

In addition sanctions have been levied against individual members of the old Yanukovych government, and sitting Russian lawmakers. Potential responses are hampered by a Western European dependence upon Russian natural gas exports, and an unwillingness to threaten a nuclear armed Russia with a crisis that may be perceived as existential in nature due to the nature of the Crimea/Russia dynamic, and Russian sensitivities regarding NATO expansion that have only been enhanced by the inclusion of Estonia and Latvia into the Alliance in 2004. Considering these factors, the seemingly lukewarm American response to Russian aggression appears to be the sum of a pragmatic cost benefit analysis. Not to put too fine a point on it, the integrity of the NATO alliance was not threatened, so the Crimean peninsula was abandoned as simply not worth the risk.

In summary the Russian intervention in the Crimean peninsula, and the American response, offers an excellent case study concerning the primacy of pragmatism over ideological preference in the international system.

The willingness of American policymakers to consolidate the military and diplomatic position of the NATO alliance instead of forcing the Russian federation into a diplomatic and military corner was an exceptional work of statecraft. If Washington’s highest priority in Europe is the maintenance of the American dominated security arrangement organized under the auspices of the NATO alliance, kinetic force marshaled in defense of territory falling outside the alliance, and well into the sphere of influence of an ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) armed Russia should be a policy of last resort if it is entertained at all.

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