By Sam Groves | Opinion Editor
A relative plateau in the Russia-Ukraine situation was broken on Monday, April 7, when pro-Russian demonstrators stormed government buildings in three eastern Ukrainian cities. Russian authorities deny any involvement in the incident, but Western and Ukrainian authorities say the demonstrations may have been a “contrived pretext for [Russian] military intervention.”
Russian forces continue to occupy the southern Ukrainian region of Crimea and insists that its annexation of the peninsula was legal and should be recognized. Furthermore, there is still a buildup of around 40,000 Russian troops at the border between Russia and Ukraine.
Russia and the West continue to trade diplomatic shots across the bow over the wider implications of the conflict. Each side has imposed sanctions against the other, and the U.S. joined with six other members of the elite global leadership forum known as the G8 to boot Russia from the group.
Russia hasn’t made any major military moves since its “partial withdrawal” of troops from the Ukrainian border on March 31. Still, the situation is hardly stable. The 40,000 remaining Russian troops on the border could launch an invasion at any moment. “We believe that it can move within 12 hours,” NATO top commander Gen. Philip M. Breedlove said. “Essentially, the force is ready to go. We believe it could accomplish its objective between three to five days.”
According to President Obama, the U.S. and its Western allies must be prepared for this possibility. Throughout this crisis, he and Secretary of State John Kerry have warned of severe consequences should Russia pursue further military action in Ukraine.
However, many Americans wonder why the U.S. is interested in the crisis at all. “Why does the U.S. care which flag will be hoisted on a small piece of land thousands of miles away?” wrote former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul in a March 17 op-ed for USA Today.
Many Americans have echoed this question in the past several weeks. According to a CBS News poll, 61 percent of Americans believe the U.S. does not have any responsibility to do something about Russia and Ukraine. Furthermore, 57 percent believe the situation is beyond the U.S.’s control.
The answer to Rep. Paul’s question will not satisfy everyone. He and other critics of U.S. intervention are correct when they say that the U.S. gets no concrete or immediate benefit out of a stable, more sovereign Ukraine and a less aggressive Russia. Our economy is not deeply entangled with Russia’s or Ukraine’s. There is no resource possessed by either country that we truly need. (It’s a different story for the European Union, which relies on Russia for about a third of its oil and gas).
Instead, the answer to Rep. Paul’s question is based largely on principle. Some will say that this makes it abstract, without any real or measurable consequences. In fact, all this means is that the consequences will take place on a larger scale. They will be longer-term, further reaching, and harder to predict.
For example, we can’t be sure that ignoring the current situation will provoke Russia to further aggression in other regions of the world, but we know that Russian President Vladimir Putin is ambitious. We know he wants to make Russia larger and more powerful, and we know from Ukraine that he is willing to bully neighboring countries to make that happen. And so, if the U.S. doesn’t stand against him now, Russia will remain a threat to global security.
In this way, overseas threats like Putin tend not to stay overseas. Russia isn’t about to invade or annex Alaska. But if Russia chooses to assert its dominance somewhere where the U.S. does have real interest—in the Middle East, for example, where Russia has allied with the regimes in Iran and Syria and often refuses to cooperate with Western powers—then Putin’s aggression, left unchecked, could do real harm to America’s international standing.
Not enough? Consider this: even without further Russian intervention, the crisis in Ukraine is a serious threat to global stability. When pro-Russian demonstrators took government buildings in eastern Ukraine and declared a “people’s republic,” it increased the likelihood of a civil war between Ukraine’s pro-Russian opposition and its newly formed pro-Western government. Such a civil war could drag on for years, like the Syrian civil war has done. And like the conflict in Syria, a bloody and destructive conflict in Ukraine would inflame political, ethnic and cultural divisions there, giving rise to new extremist factions and potentially breeding terrorism in the region.
Both scenarios—the one involving further Russian aggression and the one involving a bloody Ukrainian civil war—require assumptions we can’t possibly be sure of. Furthermore, neither scenario justifies U.S. military involvement. It’s hard to imagine a scenario that would.
Still, what these scenarios illustrate is that when one nation violates international law, and with brute force breaches the sovereignty of another nation, it’s not just a challenge to the global order of values and principles that emerged at the end of World War II and has solidified since the end of the Cold War. It also represents a threat to global security. The United States must respond to that threat, not just because it is a world superpower with a larger economy and a larger military than any other nation on Earth, but also simply because it is a part of the world. It will suffer the same global consequences as everyone else if the situation in Ukraine goes unaddressed.
We don’t know what those consequences will be. But by making educated predictions, and extrapolating current trends, we can see the possibilities. And none of them are good.