The world is watching attentively as tensions between the Russian government and the Ukrainian interim government escalate, effectively pulling Western forces into the growing conflict. Russian forces have been occupying Crimea, a portion of Ukrainian territory with linguistic and ethnic links to Russia, infuriating the Ukrainian interim government and the people.
Pro-Russian forces in Ukraine are doing little to ease tension, after attempting to shoot down an unarmed Ukrainian aircraft. Russia insists that it is working to preserve the safety and integrity of ethnic Russians. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov asserts, “This crisis was not created by us. The current government is dependent on the radical nationalists who seized the power.” He believes the Ukrainian interim government is heading in a dangerous direction.
The Ukrainian people and government are working to break away from Russia’s ancient iron grip, hoping instead to ally with the European Union. The West suspects that Russia’s occupation of Crimea has less to do with protecting ethnic Russians than it has to do with expanding its influence and keeping old Soviet Union satellite countries under its thumb.
President Obama recently initiated a conference call between British, French, Italian, Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian leaders to discuss the matter. The West is unsure how to respond to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bold advances, especially the European Union, which is hugely dependent on Russia for their oil supply.
The circumstances are indeed reminiscent of the Cold War era, a time when global powers the Soviet Union and the United States attempted to extend their influence by meddling in other states’ affairs. Recent events mark a major step back for relations between the West and Russia. The United States had been working to improve murky relations with its old rival, only to realize Russia has no plans to cooperate.
Russia’s invasion of soverign territories since 2008 has gone on with little more than a slap on the wrist from the West. Putin is confident that he can continue violating international law by imposing force on other countries because few states can punish Russia, and most that can are not willing to provoke the powerful country. Apart from sanctions and threatening words, the international community is lacking the tools to combat Russian aggression.
An official White House statement proclaimed, “All of the leaders agreed on the need for Russia to pull its military forces back to their bases, allow for the deployment of international observers and human rights monitors to the Crimean Peninsula and agree quickly on the formation of a contact group that could lead to direct dialogue between Ukraine and Russia to de-escalate the situation and restore Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Furthermore, they have declared the proposed referendum to have Crimea merge with Russia as contrary to the Ukrainian constitution. The U.S. and international community are walking a tightrope between passive diplomacy and aggressive foreign policy which could lead to a serious stand off between Russia and the West.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has called for a more forceful foreign policy, suggesting that the U.S. open offshore oil holding, closed by President Obama, to drive down the price of oil thus starving Russia out economically, which Gingrich claims previously contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s.
While this option has serious environmental consequences, the bottom line is that Russia should not be able to violate international law.
Off shore drilling is less than ideal. Hopefully the West can create a coalition that will encourage Russia to play by the rules while fostering an improved dialogue between the old rivals. Regardless, the situation is not looking good for anyone. Hilary Clinton went so far as to draw comparisons between Putin’s actions and the actions of Adolf Hitler, who often invaded countries with a humanitarian façade. The West needs to start playing hard ball if it wants to be taken seriously by Russia. However, a crucial part of foreign policy concerns easing tensions over time; therefore the West must not remain in this locked mentality after getting Russia’s attention.
It is imperative that the West disincentivize war by fostering improved economic relations—even a certain dependency. Humanitarian and political justice are not out of reach. but members of the international community need pragmatic and material incentive to play fair in a world governed by realism and power mongering.