Published: March 13, 2014
Since I last wrote about the Ukraine ("Crisis in the Ukraine", Gazette Opinion, Jan. 30), events have taken a dramatic turn. Russia's President Vladimir Putin has ordered troops to occupy the Crimean Peninsula and has scheduled a referendum on secession in three days.
I predict it will pass. Then again, with a Russian occupying army on Crimean soil, in a region that is ethnically Russian anyway, I don't think it's a particularly tough call.
I travel to the Ukraine regularly, including the Crimea. I've spent even more time in Russia. To my na?e American sensibilities, the two are indistinguishable. I've never heard a single word of Ukrainian in my time "down south" (which is good, since I only know Russian). I've never seen the Ukrainian flag publicly displayed there. Heck, I've even rollerbladed around Yalta past one of the few remaining statues of Lenin, right next to a McDonald's. Ukraine is nothing if not a land of contradictions.
None of this makes Putin any less of an authoritarian thug, nor his actions less criminal violations of sovereignty and international law. It just means that he'll succeed in grabbing the Crimea, enhancing both his power at home (Putin is extremely popular in Russia) while reducing a security threat on his country's western border. In other words, he'll do exactly what he set out to do.
America's ideals and principles are vital for domestic governance, but in foreign policy we'll do better with a more pragmatic perspective. Things are going to be different in a post-Cold War world, and we need to get used to it.
For one, our military actions over the past two decades, whether or not they were justified, have cost us the moral high ground. We have bombed and occupied countries that are oceans away, incurring thousands of casualties not only within our own military but within their civilian populations.
If we justify our actions in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan in the name of national security, is it really so bizarre to believe Russia cannot justify the occupation of the Crimea? A military action without a single casualty? In a country where it has a large naval base? Sharing a border overrun by the Nazis in World War II, taken back only at the cost of millions of Russian lives?
Like it or not, America is going to have to adjust to the reality of a post-Cold War world. But that is no reason to despair.
The crisis in the Ukraine is already providing opportunities for the country. Just yesterday, Kiev hosted a political summit meeting to implement new economic policies for the Ukraine based on the rule of law, constitutionally limited government, and true economic freedom. These approaches have worked in neighboring Baltic states like Poland, the Czech Republic, Latvia, and Estonia. They can work in the Ukraine if given the chance.
The interdependent international economy also makes war less desirable for any country, including Russia. Economic sanctions now play a much greater role in the regulation of international conduct than they ever have before. Their prospect is forcing Putin to tread much more carefully than any military threat from NATO.
Whatever happens, the world is going to be an unpredictable, messy place. Although I hope a vote will happen without an occupying army, the eastern and largely ethnic Russian regions of Ukraine might vote to join Russia as well, if given the opportunity. That's up to them.
But it would be a terrible mistake if events in the Ukraine led us to reassert a dangerous, unaffordable, and outmoded foreign policy of "America Uber Alles." That era nearly bankrupted us, morally and economically.
A more pragmatic approach doesn't lend itself nearly as easily to election slogans and sound bites. It doesn't arouse the passions the way that appeals to military glory and national might can. But in the long run, it will serve us better.
Barry Fagin is a Senior Fellow at the Independence Institute in Denver and a two-time Fulbright Scholar to the Russian Federation. His views are his alone. Readers may write Dr. Fagin at firstname.lastname@example.org.