Opinion

Face Off: Should the U.S. intervene in Ukraine?

By Patrick English '15, Hristina Mangelova '16

March 6, 2014

YES: Aggression deserves strict, swift response

In what the U.S. has been calling an “incredible act of aggression,” Russia stationed troops in Ukraine’s Crimea region last week, in an effort to protect the region from Ukraine’s interim government, which Russia calls illegitimate. Russia’s entrance into the Crimea region is unacceptable, and the U.S. and other world leaders should take it as such. While military boots on the ground are not the answer, strong action certainly needs to be taken against Russia. If nothing else, action would set a precedent that countries cannot demonstrate this kind of aggression, even in disputed territories such as Crimea. Letting this action go without a significant response would allow world powers such as China to detach parts of neighboring countries at will.

In order to fully understand this issue, it is important to have a little background on Crimea and its significance for Russia and Ukraine. As a peninsula on the Black Sea, Crimea’s advantageous ports have made it a place of many disputes in both recent and early history. Most famously, the Crimean War of the 1850’s broke out between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, with France and Britain supporting the Turks. Since then, several bloody battles have occurred on the peninsula, and the region changed hands multiple times. In 1954, the Soviet Union transferred Crimea to Ukraine as a symbolic gesture celebrating the 300th anniversary of Ukraine becoming a part of the Russian Empire. This happened despite Ukraine’s overwhelming Russian sympathy, which has caused tension in the country ever since. In its most recent presidential election, pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych narrowly defeated Yulia Tymoshenko by a little less than a million votes. The country was almost divided down the middle, with the Western part voting for Tymoshenko and the eastern region voting for Yanukovych. After Yanukovych opted for Russian aid over help from the European Union, protests broke out, causing Yanukovych to flee to Crimea and resulting in an interim, more western government that favors EU support and has accepted several aid packages in the last few weeks.

Transitioning back to the crisis at hand, while President Vladimir Putin emphasizes that Russia is simply protecting its interests and has no intentions of annexing Crimea, Russia could answer calls for help from all over the eastern part of the country.

Therefore, the U.S. must take strict and fast action against Russia. This starts with the current plan for economic sanctions, which Russia is already responding to. On Wednesday, Russia started drafting a law to confiscate all assets belonging to U.S. and European companies if sanctions on Russia are put in place. The U.S. should also refrain from any diplomatic relations with Russia, by most importantly, opting out of the G8 summit intended for Sochi in June. The U.S. and NATO should also give aid to the militaries of both Ukraine and nearby countries  such as Poland to show Russia that more aggression will result in prolonged conflict. While Russia’s military budget is currently 18 times more than that of Ukraine, a prolonged war would still be costly for the country. Crimea is still only 60 percent Russian, with Tatars and Muslim groups that would certainly be hostile to a takeover. It is positioned in the Northern Caucusus, where Russia is already battling several waves of Muslim insurgency.

With the pending regime change in Ukraine, Russia has lost a major asset in terms of world influence. Their efforts to get it back have already resulted  in suspicion from countries all over the globe. These circumstances give the U.S. a major chance to decrease Russian influence, and take the lead in the ongoing battle that they have had with this world power. Therefore, the U.S. must take swift and strict action against Russia both to seize the upper hand in this power struggle, and to show that aggression against neighboring countries will not be tolerated.

NO: Beyond diplomacy, let Ukraine fight its own battle

On Nov. 21 2013, Ukrainian ex-president Viktor Yanukovych announced that Ukraine will be taking a different political course of action, abandoning EU integration and committing to stronger ties with Russia. As a result, pro-Europe demonstrators, the majority of whom are young people, organized protests in Kiev’s Maidan square. On Dec. 1, international media reported that close to 300,000 people gathered at the central square in Kiev, thus holding the biggest protests since the Orange Revolution of 2004. Since then, the political situation in Ukraine has been constantly escalating, and with every passing day more blood has been shed and more innocent lives have been taken.

As of today, Ukraine is facing two dangers: on the one hand, a civil war brought by Ukrainians’ division into pro-Russians and pro-Europeans, and on the other hand, there are the 16,000 Russian troops in Crimea, in southern Ukraine. The question that troubles both Europeans and Americans is what can and should be done to elevate the escalated political situation in Ukraine? Should the US or European countries also send troops in support of the new Ukrainian government or will economic sanctions and diplomatic mediations be enough to scare off Russia?

In order to be able to give a well-educated response to those and other questions like it, it is important to first understand the complexity of the historical and cultural background of the region. It is no secret that ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union the Russian-Ukrainian relationship has been quite delicate, as many Russians do not accept Ukraine as  independent from Russia, and Ukrainians are very protective of their national identity.  Economically, Ukraine is very dependent on Russia. Some of the reasons Yanukovych had a change of heart on committing to the EU was the threat of trade sanctions and sky-high gas bills from Moscow which, in the short term, would severely damage Ukrainian economy and overweigh the perks of European integration and modernization. Finally, because of the often-changing borders of the region in southern Ukraine, Crimea in particular—there is a large Russian population.

It is no secret that since 2011, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been looking into ways of bringing the former countries of the Soviet Union back into a Eurasian Union. Over the past year, he has tried to bully these countries, usually through economic threats and sanctions, into adopting more Russian influence and denouncing any Western influence. With the past decades’ internal political instability in Ukraine and the escalations of the recent protests it seems like a perfect opportunity for Putin to put the military into action under the pretext of protecting the Russian population of Crimea. In fact, as Michael Auslin of Forbes says, he will slowly be conquering back former Soviet territories.

It is important to note, however, that for some time now, the Western world has been aware of Putin’s agenda and has even speculated that for this exact reason, the EU rushed into signing a contract for integration with Ukraine. As determined as Putin is to restore Russian and the former SU’s glory, as committed the West is to prevent this from happening. The dilemma, though, is how far are US and EU willing to go in order to stand up to Russia?

Secretary of State John Kerry, as cited in the Time Swampland, said that now that Russia has deployed its military in Crimea, “all cards are on the table” and that other world powers are “going to isolate Russia.” Indeed, the EU has already threatened to sanction Russia, and NATO is also reviewing its relationship with Russia. Bearing in mind that Russia is the EU’s third biggest trading partner, it is unlikely that it will take any military actions despite the escalation. Yet again, the hope lies in Germany, as the strongest European economy, to put more pressure on Moscow.

As for the U.S., with Obama’s “red line” experience during the Syrian negotiations, which could have led to a missile strike against the country, and the general public unpopularity of military interventions overseas, it is safe to say that Americans would not approve of American military involvement in Ukraine.

Sooner or later, Russia was bound to take it to the military level if not with Ukraine, then with another former SU country. As much as the Western world would like to prevent the spread of Russian influence, their means extend only to diplomacy. The rest is up to the Ukrainians, as this is a battle they have been fighting for decades.American involvement might just make matters worse.

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