Clemson University professor tells why President Obama should not overreact to Russian/Ukraine crisis, offers solutions on what United States can do

Prof. Steven V. Miller

Prof. Steven V. Miller

By Steven V. Miller, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Political Science

On Feb. 22, the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine resulted in a parliamentary vote to remove Viktor Yanukovych as President. The vote passed with 73 percent approval of Ukraine’s MPs. The Russian government responded three days later with a show of approximately 150,000 soldiers on Ukraine’s border. Within one week, the Russian military had put into motion a de facto occupation of Crimea that escalated in tone this past Monday, when Russia demanded the surrender of Ukraine’s defense forces in Crimea. The new government in Ukraine has not granted this wish from the Kremlin and it does not appear as if it will. This situation looks to only deteriorate within the coming days.

The Euromaidan protests were about policy issues of closer integration with the European Union. It later touched on the composition of a Ukrainian regime friendly to Russian interests. The provocative moves by Russia in the past week escalated the crisis in Europe to a familiar issue at the core of the worst episodes in the continent’s history: the division of territory between sovereign states.

For Russia, Crimea was the center of centuries of Russian policy that aimed to turn Russia into a European power. Its place in the ill-fated Crimean War of 1853-1856 makes the peninsula analogous to the Alamo in American lore. The territory, which became Ukrainian by Soviet dictate in 1954, has importance for Ukrainian identity as well.

When policymakers handle a salient zero-sum issue like this with realpolitik policy prescriptions like we are currently observing, crises become wars. This is the “steps to war” argument advanced by political scientist and author John Vasquez.

A possible military conflict regarding a cession or annexation of Crimea from Ukraine would have important geopolitical implications for Europe that the continent had not seen since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Desiring to avoid this revision to the current status quo, President Obama is facing calls from all segments of society that amount for a call to “do something”.

“Do something” signifies nothing in particular. The current situation does not lend itself to an off-the-shelf response at the moment.

Hardliners in the U.S. that want an American militarized response are asking for policies suited for important issues of national security. Ukraine is not a core security interest, nor is it a country, like West Germany during the Cold War, within America’s immediate reach. The problem is Ukraine is in Russia’s “sphere of influence,” language dating to Soviet foreign policy and still prominent in Russian foreign policy today.

The issues at stake in this conflict involve issues of national importance to Russia. These include the future of the naval base in Sevastopol, the composition of a Ukrainian regime that the Kremlin expects to conform to Russian interests, the natural gas pipeline into Europe that runs through Ukraine, the treatment of pro-Russian nationals in Crimea, and the symbolic importance of Crimea to Russian and Ukrainian identity. These localized issues are not vital to the United States.

A militarized response from the U.S. may only exacerbate the problem. The Kremlin desires an easy justification of continued involvement in Crimea to offset some hesitation among the more pacific elements of Russian society. This is why Russian maneuvers are, in some measure, aimed at provoking the Neo-Nazis that are playing an incidental, if non-trivial, role in Euromaidan.  A U.S. or NATO presence in the Black Sea would also make the case for continued Russian escalation.

Unless the U.S. and its NATO allies are willing to fight Russia over Crimea, no threat or display of force will have the desired effect of deterring further Russian involvement in Ukraine. The Kremlin knows this. This is why President Obama’s comments have stressed the “costs” of what Russia is doing without implying any U.S. threat to use force.

Russia also knows of its leverage elsewhere. The average American citizen may not understand the extent to which the U.S. values Russian cooperation on issues of counter-terrorism, the war in Afghanistan, and ballistic missile reductions. Russian cooperation made the 2007 sanctions against Iran feasible. It was these sanctions that led to the recent agreement with Iran about its nuclear program. A militarized response from the U.S. entails important opportunity costs.

Further, Russian natural gas pipelines, some of which run through Ukraine, provide energy to much of Central Europe. Militarization from the U.S. may lead to a denial of natural gas for European allies.

This discussion may not be welcome to an American audience that would like to “do something.”

So, what can be done? Some proposals come to mind, though may not have the desired effect of deterring further Russian involvement in Crimea.

Though Russia boasts of Chinese approval of its current Ukrainian policy, unequivocal Chinese support of Russian intentions for Ukraine would be surprising. Russia and China share many policies in common, though the territorial history of the two is among the most problematic in the entire international system. The two countries have signed a series of agreements since 1991 to formalize a border subject to what China labeled “unequal treaties”. These were a class of treaties imposed on China since the fall of the Qing Dynasty. A de facto Russian annexation of Crimea could give the wrong signal to China that border agreements Russia signed in its weakened state after 1991 are subject to revision on Russia’s whim. The United States may want to consider a multilateral approach with its European allies, as well as China.

It may also be time to put away the infamous “reset” button. This ceremonial button presented by Hillary Clinton to the Russian Foreign Minister in 2009 exemplified the goal of Washington to identify mutual interests with Moscow despite the recent Cold War rivalry. Behavior from Russia in both Georgia and, now, Ukraine suggests foreign policy decision-making in the Kremlin still informed by visions of empire and great power status. Policies of containment and “isolation” are not implied, but a change in rhetoric may follow.

Senator John McCain has also discussed possible “punishments” for Russia. These include pulling out of the upcoming G8 summit in Sochi and imposing travel bans and economic sanctions on top-level Russian officials. The former is a symbolic punishment at the most and would have zero effect on the motivating issue. Travel bans and economic sanctions also impose costs on European allies, which would be expected to implement these punishments faithfully. If implemented, the sanctions would still not match the stakes for Russia in Ukraine.

The other punishments discussed by Senator McCain may not achieve core security goals. McCain wants to pursue missile installation systems in Poland and the Baltic states, plans that were scuttled by President Obama. He also wants to extend NATO membership to Georgia. It is not clear that missile installation systems would accomplish core American security interests. It would only lead to a similar effort in Russia. Nothing is ultimately gained.

Extending NATO membership is also inadvisable. Americans take NATO’s benevolence for granted, though this view is not held in Russia. Extending NATO into Eastern Europe in the 1990s may have come at the expense of forgoing further Russian cooperation through the early 2000s. It may also not have mattered to its stated goal of bringing democracy to the former Warsaw Pact states that joined. These states were democratizing independent of NATO.

Georgia actually wants to join NATO. It left Russia’s Commonwealth of Independent States with the goal of joining NATO. President Bush actively supported a Membership Action Plan for Georgia. This played a role in the Russian conflict against Georgia regarding the autonomous province of South Ossetia. The real implication was any NATO assurance to Georgia may not be credible.

As residents of the world’s unquestioned superpower and victor of the Cold War, Americans are looking to President Obama to “do something” about the ongoing Crimean Crisis. The issue in question is a familiar one to conflict scholars, but a crisis with no immediate policy solutions for the U.S. This is a core national interest for Russia, not for the United States.

It is also Russia’s “domain of loss” as Ukraine looks west, and not east, to its future. The stakes for the United States will never be more than negligible. The policies pursued by the U.S. should reflect that.


Steven V. Miller, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of political science at Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina. His research has been published in journals such as Comparative Political Studies, Journal of Conflict Resolution, Journal of Peace Research, Conflict Management and Peace Science, and Social Science Quarterly.  His research and teaching interests include international conflict, democratic peace and conflict behavior, and political behavior. In particular, his current research agenda focuses on changes in individual-level attitudes and political behavior as part of the conflict process linking salient issues in the international system to militarized conflict.

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