Widgets Magazine


Beware of the “Bad”: A Second Look at Ukraine

Imagine if a popular pro-Chinese movement in Tokyo toppled the Japanese government today. Yes, this scenario is extremely unlikely, but indulge me for a moment. The United States has very well-defined interests inside Japan, including a number of important military bases. The Japanese government is our largest ally in the area and a great supporter of our regional interests. Now imagine it was rumored that the Chinese government had fanned the flames of the revolution and that it was intending to orchestrate the institution of a new pro-Chinese government.

The implications of such a revolution would be enormous for American trade, military and diplomatic initiatives in Southeast Asia. As an American citizen, I would expect that our leadership would get involved in order to safeguard our military bases in Japan from the new anti-American government and, for one, to ensure that our weaponry would stay under our control.

Russia has found itself in a very similar position. Not only is the Crimean city of Sevastopol the base for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, the peninsula is also home to four missile regiments and a dozen active bases. In addition, The New York Times reported that an overwhelming majority of Ukrainian nationals in Crimea are native Russian speakers as opposed to Ukrainian ones – a legacy of Crimea’s long political association with Russia. Add to that the fact that the ouster of former president Viktor Yanukovych constitutes an effective severance of Russian control over the Ukrainian political class, leaving the country open to Western machinations.

In addition to the more abstract ethnic and military losses, less control over Ukraine means more economic exposure to Western interests and less diplomatic independence for Russia. To Russia, the Ukraine situation is especially important because Russia’s economy is heavily dependent on oil exports to Europe, its largest trading partner, which travel primarily through Ukraine. In response to these circumstances, it would be only sensible to, at the very least, gather some political leverage to ensure the Russian voice is considered in deciding the fate of the nation.

Ostensibly, Russian people, Russian military bases and Russian economic interests are jeopardized by the recent revolution. I am convinced that any country with the power to influence the region would react similarly when facing this set of pressures.

The Russian government has continually stated that their control of the peninsula is temporary and that they have no intention of conquering Ukraine. Despite many media-born rumors about ultimatums, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has continuously maintained that the troops will simply remain until there is a “normalization of the political situation.” He has expressed concerns about the manifestation of anti-Russian sentiments in Ukraine and reportedly wants to protect ethnic Russian citizens from potential abuse. Given the antagonistic intensity of the protests on both sides, this is not an absurd proposition.

You may say that Russia should have allowed the international relations apparatus to decide the fate of Ukraine in a fair and neutral way as opposed to making such a boldly unilateral move. I would simply ask you to refer to the effectiveness of international relations forums in ensuring political stability in the wake of a revolution over the last half-decade: Syria is still in a state of civil war and Libya has essentially devolved into a set of antagonistic factional kingdoms. Not very promising to a Russian statesman – especially if there are military and ethnic interests at play.

These Russian justifications for action are being totally ignored in the popular American dialogue: Our politicians, as well as news outlets, are characterizing the temporary effective annexation of Crimea as an expansionist Russian move. However, an analysis from the Russian perspective suggests that its current position is not only a prudent but also a shrewd geopolitical strategy in order to safeguard its interest.

The American political and journalistic irreverence for non-American narratives of international relations is extremely unhealthy, and we’ve seen what kind of situations they have put this country in time and time again. Our press and politicians have historically undervalued important cultural, social and historical considerations when judging international foreign policy. This has been most recently exemplified by our naïve interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, which both ignored complex political dynamics in favor of nationalistic fervor and dogmatic appeals to a nebulous sense of justice.

This is not to say that Russia is a benevolent actor and that it should be praised, but rather that international relations are complex and “good versus bad” narratives usually come at the expense of well thought-out and intelligent solutions. Recent history has taught us that coherent characterizations of certain interests as being wholly bad usually are more suggestive of manipulation than any empirical reality.

Contact Anthony Ghosn at anghosn@stanford.edu.