Time to face Reality

Note: I wrote this piece back in March 2014 when the referendum in Crimea was held. I am not sure why it never got published. Maybe I just wrote it to get my own thoughts in order. Looking at it 3 years later, its clear that Europe/NATO is still undecided on its strategy vis-a-vis the Russian Federation.

The political message could not have been any clearer. In a blatant disregard for international law and the Ukrainian constitution, 81.3% of eligible voters in the autonomous region of Crimea turned up to Sunday’s referendum and almost unanimously (96.77%) voted in favor of joining the Russian Federation. Within 48 hours, Crimea unilaterally declared independence and Russia formally annexed the region. Meanwhile, complacent with occupying the moral high ground, Washington and Brussels condemned the developments as illegal and implemented targeted economic sanctions against several Russian and Crimean officials. But where is this conflict heading towards given the widening gap between Western diplomatic ambitions and Eastern political realities?

It is always easy to be a hawk on the hill, and it is even easier to be a bureaucrat in contemporary Europe. Yes, the Crimean referendum and its annexation violated international law, and yes, Russian military forces significantly altered the political environment on the Peninsula prior to the vote. Yet, apart from ridiculing Putin and arguing legal semantics, the West stood idly by while the Kremlin pro-actively pushed its security interests in Southern Ukraine. Admittedly, Washington and Brussels collectively failed to grasp the gravity and speed by which events in Crimea were rapidly unfolding.

Now labeled the worst East-West crisis since the end of the Cold War, the West has little to offer and little to gain by supporting the embattled interim government in Kiev. Indeed, the idea of standing up for international law and defending the sovereignty of a country always considered to be firmly in Moscow’s security sphere, is primarily driven by noble ambitions without a serious thought about Europe’s new geopolitical challenge.

Washington and Brussels need to realize that the time for diplomatic solutions in the Ukraine has ended. Tit-for-tat economic sanctions and non-lethal support for a decaying and outgunned Ukrainian military is not going to put the West where it wants to be in this rapidly militarizing conflict between Kiev and Moscow.

Contrary to conventional wisdom however, the Ukrainian crisis has become less complex due to the Crimean annexation. Currently, there are only two grand policy options on the table for the United States and the European Union when it comes to dealing with the Russian Federation.

Option one is a comprehensive military agenda that creates a political bargaining position to counter Crimean annexation. At the helm of this strategic approach is the idea to pressure the Kremlin into submission by laying bare Moscow’s military vulnerabilities. Policy steps would include isolating the Russian military enclave in Kaliningrad by closing down the Lithuanian border, entering military intelligence-sharing agreements with Kiev, and providing logistical support to shift Ukraine’s defense posture from West to East. The primary goal of this strategic approach is to escalate the Crimean issue into a question on the overall concept of European security. Thereby either forcing the Russian’s back to the negotiation table or exposing the Kremlin’s aggressive intentions in Eastern Europe and beyond.

Option two is geared towards a status quo stalemate that admits the political realities on the ground while safeguarding the rest of the Ukraine against further Russian incursions. The most favorable policy prescription to attain this goal would be to offer the Ukraine NATO membership with an exclusionary clause covering Crimea. While the 28 NATO members may not be eager to share an additional 1000 miles of border with an aggressive Russian Federation, the buck has to stop somewhere. NATO membership is the West’s best bet to comprehensively implement and shape the necessary Security Sector Reforms within the Ukraine, while concurrently easing the impact of Kiev’s upcoming IMF bailout.

No matter which foreign policy option Washington and Brussels will veer towards in the not so distant future, the geopolitical challenge facing the Ukraine and Europe cannot go unanswered and it must not be appeased. It is not anymore about the legitimacy of the interim-government in Kiev. Nor is it about the history of Kosovo’s independence or the lingering conflicts across Georgia. Mother Russia has invaded and carved apart its weaker brotherly neighbor in times of political and economic upheaval. An act so atrocious and violent that it will shape Europe’s security architecture in the years and decades ahead. So if push comes to shove, the West better push hard, because Moscow’s security interests do not stop in Crimea.

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