West needs strategy not just a reaction to Russia
In the west, the conversation is dominated by discussion of how to punish and isolate Russia for its role in the invasion and annexation of Crimea. That is a reaction not a strategy. A strategy begins with a clear understanding of the operational objective.
A western strategy should not set as its objective the rollback of the annexation of Crimea to force the peninsula back into Ukraine. Michael McFaul, the former US ambassador to Russia, has argued that the Crimean case should be treated the way Washington treated the 1940 Soviet annexation of the Baltic republics: permanent non-recognition with the professed goal of eventual rollback. Such a position is unsound. The circumstances of the two episodes are quite different.
Many western experts knew the Crimean portion of the early 1990s settlement had a tenuous character, given the status of Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Some also recall the arbitrary background of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s attachment of Crimea to Ukraine in 1954, while these territories were parts of the Soviet Union. This bit of caprice had its roots in several land-grabs that Khrushchev had sought for his Ukrainian domain back when he was its Soviet Communist party boss. Never part of Ukraine or independent, the Crimea had just been liberated from German military occupation when Khrushchev added it to his wishlist. One of Khrushchev’s biographers recounts him telling a Ukrainian colleague: “Ukraine is in ruins but everybody wants something from it. Now what if it received the Crimea in return?” Stalin turned him down. But 10 years later, shortly after Khrushchev took Stalin’s place, he had his way.
Given that there will now be some revision of the post-cold war diplomatic settlement, the objective of the western strategy should be to set firm limits on any further revisions in eastern Europe. In the short run, the strategy imposes sanctions on Russians for outlaw behaviour. The strategy would also entail non-recognition of the annexation of Crimea. Recognising this annexation could come later, if it is part of a larger diplomatic understanding in which Russia chooses to rejoin a system of common security.
Agreement? With Russia? With Putin? One could argue that Russia has already just torn up at least one such understanding. That includes the Budapest memorandum of 1994, in which it agreed to safeguard Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Russia also violated other agreements to avoid the use of force in changing international borders.