Crimea, Ukraine. Until a couple of weeks ago, it was a small, unremarkable and unknown region for most Americans outside academic circles. But after the rising unrest in Kiev, Ukraine, Crimea made headlines as it voted on a referendum to secede and join Russia.
The referendum was a move that was internationally denounced by the European Union, United States and Ukraine. But Russia embraced it both to punish Ukraine, whose revolution ousted a pro-Russian government, and to bolster and grow Russian power and interest. Yet this isn’t the first time Russia has played this game. In 2008, Georgia lost regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in a five day war with Russia.
The regions have an ethnic majority of Russians — as does Crimea — which was used as pretext for Russian intervention. The largest difference between Georgia in 2008 and Crimea today is that Abkhazia and South Ossetia became “independent” republics, while Crimea, which carries a greater strategic value, would join the Russian Federation. The Georgian territory Russia “freed” was little more than a land grab that granted Russia greater access to the Black Sea as reward for its liberation work. However, Crimea would grant Russia control over the Sea of Azov, just north of the Black Sea, and connect naval bases there to the Black Sea. To the modern Western eye, Russia’s actions seem hard to understand. Crimea’s value comes in the form of economic benefits and military access.
Control over the Sea of Azov and its connection to the Black Sea translates to control over shipping routes that can be taxed and the corresponding flow of capital. However, Western nations, displeased with Russian aggression, have been moving to emplace sanctions on Russia. Sanctions could negate any benefits Russia would gain through control of Crimea and could cripple its economy. Crippling the Russian economy would be a devastating blow to Russian-Western relations that have “thawed” in the years since the fall of the Soviet Union. But what seems clear is that Russia, and more specifically President Vladimir Putin and his cronies, does not seem to value either the economy or Russian-Western relations in the same way the global community does.
Through Crimea, Russia and the West achieve fundamentally different objectives through different means. The West wants to maintain the status quo while Russia wants to restore its Cold War level of influence and power. The West and Russia are simply not playing the same game. One is playing checkers while the other is playing chess.
The West’s threat of sanctions is the taking of a pawn to Russia. It is not a devastating lost, nor is it to be unexpected, since pawns are not the end of themselves but one of many means to power. Power — it seems to be Putin’s first language. He has wielded it in Russia for the past decade and a half as president and prime minister and has used it to drown out opposition. In fact, Russian power is what makes the Ukrainian and Crimean crisis so volatile because war, hot or cold, is a very real possibility.
Our generation does not truly know war. Yes, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been waged over most of our lives, but those are distant and foreign conflicts. The landscapes are alien, the people exotic, and we as civilians have not had to endure rations or embargoes. Our lives have remained relatively unchanged through the course of these wars.
But a conflict with Russia would have real effects in our lives. Russia would be an adversary that is our equal. If a war is fought, the battlefield could be in Eastern Europe, a region that has not seen world powers clash since the end of World War II. War is not inevitable. The men in Washington, members of the European Union and NATO are trying to avoid further escalation. Yet would avoiding escalation just postpone conflict?
Everyone can agree the Crimea situation is more volatile than the Georgian one six years ago. Is that not evidence that Russia is growing more brazen? There are no easy answers to these questions and conflicts. Nobody wants war, but peace is a goal that sometimes requires the greatest sacrifice of all: the loss of face and power. But can world leaders swallow their pride?
Sean McMahon is a junior from Riverside, R.I., majoring in English and advertising.