Lessons From Ukraine’s Crisis

The referendum that occurred on Sunday in Crimea was a flagrant violation of Ukraine’s constitution. And it was held amidst a Russian military occupation supposedly mounted to defend ethnic Russians on the peninsula, even though there was no evidence that they were under attack.

Close to 97 percent of those who voted in the referendum chose to turn the “Autonomous Republic of Crimea,” a constituent part of Ukraine, into the “Republic of Crimea.” But this is a temporary status. A delegation from the new statelet is now in Russia; its mission is to make Crimea part of the Russian Federation.

There are several lessons to be learned from the Crimean crisis.

One is that President Vladimir Putin is not Homo economicus. One of the themes evident in recent Western press coverage of Ukraine is that Russia would reap a bitter economic harvest were Putin to throw caution to the wind, slice off Crimea, and attach it to Russia.

There were warnings that the ruble’s value would fall, that the Russian central bank would have to spend billions of dollars propping it up, and that Russia’s stock market would take a hit.

All of this has happened, and Putin almost certainly anticipated these consequences. Yet the economic losses didn’t affect his conduct in the least. In the days preceding the referendum there was not a jot of evidence that Russia was seeking a compromise, let alone backing off.

For Putin, this crisis is about power and prestige, not economic balance sheets.

Crimea, it would appear, is already lost to Ukraine, unless Putin decides that he will let it inhabit a gray zone as an independent state — one that only Russia recognizes — for a while before formally annexing it.

The question is what happens next.

This brings me to the other lessons offered by this crisis.

On the face of it, the West has considerable economic leverage over Russia. This is particularly true of the European Union, which conducts over $400 billion in trade with Russia and is the source of three fourths of the foreign direct investment in Russia.

But the EU, while it has spoken of economic punishment, has been reluctant to slap full-scale sanctions on Russia.

True, the EU has joined the United States in placing travel bans and asset freezes on high-ranking members of Russia’s government, but its 28 members won’t be able to agree on a follow-up plan that subjects Russia to serious economic pain. Russia will be pinched hard enough to anger it but not hard enough to force it to reassess its conduct in Ukraine.

There are three reasons for the EU’s reticence: First, the EU (especially its eastern members) is located much closer to Russia than the United States is, and European governments are understandably worried about taking steps that would cause this crisis to escalate; second, because the EU gets, on average, close to 30 percent of its natural gas, coal, and crude oil from Russia, Putin is hardly lacking the means to apply economic counter-pressure; and third, the EU cannot curtail trade and investment with Russia sharply without exposing itself to hardship. (Such is the nature of economic interdependence.)

So a second lesson provided by Ukraine’s crisis is that the threat of sanctions will not have any effect if the side applying them also stands to suffer.

A third lesson is that Russia’s isolation (even China refused to side with it in vetoing Saturday’s draft UN Security Council resolution condemning Crimea’s referendum) paradoxically works to Putin’s advantage. The unwieldy EU must struggle to hammer out a unified position on sanctions, and the EU and the United States must agree on a common plan of action. In short, the West faces a huge collective action problem. Putin, whose power in Russia is subject to few if any restraints, does not have to worry about consensus building and coalition politics.

A fourth lesson is that Mr. Putin, despite these advantages, is not necessarily in control of events. His plan may be to declare victory in Crimea and call it a day. But if the Crimean referendum prompts Russian nationalists in Russophone eastern Ukraine (or the Donbass, as it’s referred to) to agitate for union with Russia and to demand referendums of their own, and if those moves spark clashes between unionists and secessionists, Putin, having proclaimed that he will protect Russians in Ukraine, could find himself drawn into what will be a far more dangerous situation. Russia’s relationship with the West, already tattered, will then be beyond repair for several years.

Here’s the final lesson: President Obama has been subjected to scathing criticism during this crisis, but there’s nothing that he can do to change the facts on the ground in Ukraine.

Senator John McCain has been attacking Obama’s weak leadership, but McCain hasn’t been able to explain what he would have done were he president. McCain is against going to war with Russia, as is everyone who isn’t delusional; U.S.-Russia trade is about a 10th of the value of EU-Russia trade; and targeted sanctions and tough talk won’t sway Putin.

In short, the United States is holding a weak hand, and blustering isn’t going to change this fact; it will only make it even more evident.

Whatever this crisis is about, it’s not about American weakness. So let’s end the self-absorption and self-flagellation and resist the temptation to turn the Ukraine crisis into yet another occasion for partisanship and cheap shots.

Now, that’s within our power to do.

Rajan Menon is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of Political Science at the Colin Powell School, City College of New York/City University of New York, and Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Image: (Photo: Flickr/Sasha Maksymenko/CC License)