It’s been a rapid-fire collection of events over the past week in (far) Eastern Europe. The bully/former president of Ukraine was removed from power by both demonstrators in Kiev’s central square and the Ukranian Parliament itself. Ukraine took rapid steps towards reorienting itself toward Europe and, more consequently, the United States.
But that wasn’t all. Ukraine’s former president was declared a fugitive from justice, wanted forcrimes against his own people. He vanished for a few days, then turned up in southern Russia only to declare himself not deposed.
Then the situation turned really weird. The Russians invaded the Crimean peninsula, a Russian-majority, autonomous region in the far south of Ukraine. Though the Russians claim that they’ve done so to protect their already sizable military assets in the territory, it is obvious that they seek to pry the peninsula away from Ukraine. If not through outright annexation, then perhaps by the establishment of some kind of proxy republic along the lines of what’s occurred in Georgia.
Obama warned Russia not to do this. Our president wasn’t very specific about what the consequences of such action would be, of course, but he dared Putin to cross a line, which Putin promptly crossed. Though I doubt that the world will soon be enveloped in a thermonuclear war on behalf of Ukraine, it looks like we’re on the verge of some kind of classic, Cold War-like showdown. If some of the editors at the National Review had their way, we’d probably have troops on the ground in Kiev at this moment. So in the middle of this whirlwind of revolution, diplomacy and war, to those who are demanding American boots on the ground and the U.S. Navy to blockade Russian ports, I say this:
We need to remember some facts about Ukraine that many Americans – most, in fact, are completely ignorant of. First, the country’s borders, particularly concerning Crimea, are a result of internal wrangling in the former Soviet Union. The Communist party originally transferred Crimea as a ‘gift’ from then-Soviet dominated Russia to the then Soviet-dominated Ukraine. Since both regional jurisdictions back then were irrelevant, the move was strictly and strangely symbolic. Now we’re coping with the legacy of this move.
Secondly, Ukraine is a demographic mess. Its larger western portion is dominated by Ukrainians, who despise Mother Russia as the Poles, our allies, do. Any Ukrainian would tell you that they hold Soviet Russia rightfully responsible for the genocidal famine of their land in the 1930’s, and the subsequent Nazi invasion of the same land a decade later (due, mainly, to Stalin’s indifference and negligence toward the Ukrainians under his rule). Now to my American readers, I know that these historical facts seem rather trivial, but believe me, in Ukraine, they’re not. They’re everything.
Ukraine’s eastern portion, including Crimea, is ethnically dominated by Russians. This large population is a result of Stalin’s “Russificiation” policies of the former Soviet Union, which aimed at thinning out the native populations of the non-Russian portions of the Soviet Union. It was a failed policy, of course, but its legacy is still felt in every former Soviet republic, from Estonia to Latvia to Ukraine to Georgia.
Putin’s intentions thus far seem pretty limited, even in Ukraine. The Russian leader may talk tough, but even he knows the limitations of his armed forces and national budget. Occupying small portions of Ukraine dominated by Russians is one thing, but chancing a long and dangerous guerilla war with the majority of Ukrainians, while earning the enmity of all Europe is quite another. In short, I don’t think that Putin is interested in conquering and forcefully annexing all of Ukraine.
I could be proven wrong, of course, over the next few weeks or even days of events. Therefore right now I believe that though we ought to continue to denounce the Russians for their actions, which are illegal under international law, the U.S. and its Western allies need to sit tight. This is because we need to remember something important: we won the Cold War. Aside from Ukraine and tiny Moldova, which are ethnically troubled to be sure, all of Eastern Europe sits safely under NATO’s protective umbrella. American fighter jets and those of its allies fly daily over the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. American and allied troops sit at the ready not in Germany, Britain and France, but in Romania, Poland, Bulgaria and Turkey and, of course, the Baltic States.
Russia is a flailing, Third World military power. This is not the Soviet Union at its peak. Russia’s population is in steep decline. Its overdependence on funding its government though the selling of its natural resources has proven dangerous in this time of steadily falling gas and oil prices. Believe me, the American discovery and extraction of usable fossil fuels in places like North Dakota and Alaska pose far more of a danger to Putin’s Russia than many people realize.
Russia is also geographically overextended and domestically troubled. Putin’s own government, if certain trends in fuel prices and demographics continue, has a troubled future, if it has a future at all.
Again, I’m not stipulating that Putin loves democracy, or is some kind of moral leader and incapable of doing harm. He’s a bully and aspiring dictator. But he’s got limits. And we do too. For those Americans who are now calling for a fast, $15 billion grant to Ukraine, I ask this: have you seen Trenton lately? Visited Newark or Paterson? Perhaps a few billion should be thrown in their direction before we start writing checks to Kiev.