Byrd: Back to the 19th century in Ukraine

BY MATTHEW BYRD | MARCH 04, 2014 5:00 AM

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If you’re a history nerd such as myself, this past week has been a weird time loop back to the mid-19th century.

I mean, how else can you describe an expansionist Russia invading Crimea, a majority-ethnic Russian region with strong cultural and historical ties to both Russia and Ukraine, of all places in the wake of the ouster of Ukraine’s pro-Russian strongman President, Viktor Yanukovych, much to the chagrin of the U.S.-Western European alliance?

Nakedly opportunistic land grabs as a mean of displaying political power have been out of fashion on the global scene since, at the very latest, the end of the Second World War. In an era in which political hegemony is increasingly bought through economic growth, alliance building, and other means of soft power, Vladimir Putin’s Crimean adventure seems downright archaic.

Luckily, the archaic options for the U.S.-EU alliance in dealing with this crisis, mainly military intervention, are off the table because the United Nations will never back military action because of Russia’s veto on the Security Council, and Ukraine isn’t a NATO member, ruling out intervention through that organization. This may be a blessing in disguise since, barring the unlikely scenario that Russia will begin slaughtering ethnic Ukrainians in Crimea en masse, there’s almost no realistic possibility of a shooting war developing in Eastern Europe between two nuclear powers.

So, it seems that the best way to deal with Russia’s antiquated power tactics is to employ some equally modern means of kicking Russian troops out of Crimea. Hayes Brown at Think Progress has suggested that expelling Russia from the G8 and placing a travel ban on Putin to U.S.-EU countries may weaken Russia’s international image enough to persuade Putin that this Ukrainian intervention just isn’t worth it.

A more ambitious move might be enacting heavy trade sanctions with Russia, a country whose economic relationship with this country nets it nearly $40 billion per year. These actions would certainly hit the petrochemical dependent, export-driven Russian economy hard, and if Putin is smart enough to realize Russia’s economic health is more important than holding on to the relatively small piece of land that is Crimea, Russian withdrawal may be accomplished.

However, getting Russia to vacate Ukraine is only a short-term goal. As The Nation points out, the reason the ethnic Russian-heavy eastern parts of the country are in upheaval at the moment is because ultranationalistic, ethnic Ukrainian forces in the west of the country have been the driving force behind this revolution. Many of them, not entirely incorrectly, believe that this revolution will create an ethnic-Ukrainian-dominated state that will clamp down on the political rights of ethnic minorities.

If the U.S.-EU is successful in ending the military crisis in Crimea, it needs to establish negotiations between ethnic Ukrainian political forces and their ethnic Russian counterparts in order to form a government that takes both of these groups considerations into account. Something similar to the Good Friday Agreement, which developed a power-sharing system between Northern Ireland’s warring Catholic and Protestant factions in the mid-90s. If a pluralistic state is untenable, an outcome that preferably should be avoided, the Ukrainian government could set up referendums in Crimea and other Russian-speaking regions in the country in order to allow the people to decide if they want to remain a part of Ukraine, secede, or even join Russia.

These options are, of course, much preferable to the way these crises were handled in the mid-19th century. Mostly with tons of people dead. Let’s try to avoid that.

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