The Limits of Power: Crimea Edition

There are simply very few policy options on the table for the U.S. and NATO, argues Steve Saideman.
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March 4, 2014
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This morning, Vladimir Putin held a press conference explaining Russia’s presence in Crimea that created more confusion than clarity. The Russian president seemed to be simultaneously pulling back and doubling down. I will let other Kremlinologists try to figure out what Putin meant and what he is likely to do.  I simply want to make the point that there is little that the U.S., Canada, and NATO can do about the situation in Ukraine.

It has taken a few days, but various folks are now reminding us that this is not about Obama being weak. This is about the West having few options. American officials did not roll back the Soviet Army after the Second World War, nor did any American president respond with force to Soviet interventions in East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, or Poland. No, Russia is not the Soviet Union, but the larger dynamic is the same: great power – which the U.S. still has – does not mean infinite capability.

That is to say that there are very few policy options on the table for the U.S. and NATO. How could they punish Russia? Given that Russia is a central player in so many dynamics, there is little it can be excluded from.  Europe is dependent on Russia for oil and gas, meaning their interdependence is uneven, with Russia probably having, in the short term at least, more of a hammer than the Europeans. The use of force is off the table because our interests in Ukraine, which are fairly modest strong, are not worth a war with Russia. 

Indeed, this is one core dynamic that cannot be overlooked – that Russia cares far, far more about Ukraine than the U.S./Canada/NATO does. The crises mentioned above were all in areas within the Soviet Union’s and then Russia’s sphere of influence – places where outcomes are vital to the national security. Sorry to say, Ukraine does not matter to the West in any real way.  The only way it would matter is if it was a member of NATO, which would mean that commitments would have to be kept.

While some are blaming the U.S. and NATO for not admitting Ukraine, I am not. This is partly because Ukraine at various points in time did not want to become a member, and NATO has never forced a country to become a member. But mostly I do not want Ukraine to be a member of NATO because I don’t think a commitment to it would ever be believable. Just as the U.S. could/would not come to the defence of Georgia, there are places in the world that are just too far away and too close to someone else for NATO to defend.

You do not have to be a realist scholar of international relations to recognize the limits of power and the impact of interests. In any bargaining situation, if there is a big difference in the stakes for the players, the one with higher stakes tends to win. They don’t have to demonstrate resolve because it is manifestly obvious.

The U.S. and its allies have pretty much done what they can do – show a united front, drop out of the G8 meeting, declare their frustration, and so on. They have offered an off-ramp for Russia with international monitors to protect the ethnic Russians (who do not seem to be in much danger).

Yes, it can be very frustrating, but there are real limits to power. Obama cannot wave a magic wand and shout “impedimenta” or “expelliarmus” at Putin to get Russia to withdraw from Crimea. That only works for Harry Potter. The bigger question right now is not what will happen in Washington or Brussels, but who might shoot or not shoot in Crimea.