Lately, the news has been filled with articles about Ukraine. First there were the protests, newsworthy perhaps, but of little interest for many nations. Then those protests turned violent, and news agencies began to take interest; however, for some, while they were reporting now, the news was still only worthy of being tucked away in a little corner of the world news section (and indeed, it is only now that I see something about Ukraine being clearly visible on the main page of The New Zealand Herald). Now we have Russian forces stationed in the Crimea, a development which could potentially have some long-term negative consequences for all involved.
How it stands now
As of today, it is being reported1 that Russia has 16.000 troops in the Crimea, 10.000 more than initially estimated by the United States. Ukrainian authorities have said that Russian troops have ordered two of Ukraine’s warships to surrender or be seized, leading to threats from the U.S. that continued military action would be a costly proposition for Russia.
Of course, this isn’t the first threats made in response to the stationing of Russian forces in the Crimea. The G7 has released a collective statement in which they state their decision to suspend participation in activities for the preparation of the June G8 summit in Sochi.2 President Obama has raised the prospect of the U.S. boycotting the summit entirely,3 the Canadian Prime Minister has recalled Canada’s ambassador to Russia,3 and David Cameron has announced that “[William Hague] & I believe it would be wrong for UK Ministers to attend the Sochi Paralympics.”4
Economically, the U.S. has already said that it is considering sanctions against Russia,1 and if it does, it is possible the European Union will also implement some form of economic sanction. However, there are signs that there isn’t a strong international agreement there, with a leaked document suggesting that the United Kingdom doesn’t currently support trade sanctions, and would like London’s financial centre to remain open to Russians.5
The problem with threats
These threats mostly follow the standard response to such crises, and while they may have had some success in other cases, Russia is quite different from the smaller nations they are normally used against. One primary concern is that, unlike most other nations, there isn’t really room for a potential military back-up to support such sanctions, nor can military action realistically be used as a threat.
The most likely consequence of military action would be another era of proxy wars at best, and at worst it would become an all-out war between the E.U., U.S., and allies, and the Russians and whoever would ally with them (and I don’t doubt there’s a number of nations who would). The best case scenario of such a war would be devastation to Europe, and the worst case scenario would be one of the sides being pushed so close to destruction as to begin unleashing their nuclear arsenal. Fortunately for us all, everyone seems to realise that military action isn’t the best of ideas, and so it’s very much not a consideration as a response.
Thus the world is left with diplomatic and economic responses. The current diplomatic responses, such as officially condemning the Russian actions, recalling ambassadors, and threatening boycotts, are likely to have little effect, just as such responses to the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq would have been ignored by the U.S.
Economic sanctions are probably the most powerful tool left that can realistically be used. These will have an effect on Russia; however, they will also have an effect on the nations that use them. Already we’ve seen drops in stock markets, and while the Russian rouble fell to its lowest point against the dollar, the euro also fell.1 Oil prices also rose, as Russia is a major exporter of oil and natural gas.
Given that the E.U. relies on Russian gas, economic sanctions could well backfire, even if the gas exports are exempted. Russia could well retaliate to any sanctions by stopping the export of gas to the E.U., and this would also have a negative affect on Ukraine, through which much of the gas flows, and indeed, Russia has cut off the gas flowing through Ukraine before. Likewise, the U.K.’s reluctance to support trade sanctions, and to keep London open to Russian financial dealings, shows that the sanctions could impact the E.U. in more ways than just the gas supply.
Outside of Europe the impacts would be lesser, but they would still exist. Oil prices would almost certainly rise, especially if sanctions included oil. Countries with a major domestic production, like the U.S. might be able to remain essentially unaffected, or be able to keep below the global rise (at least temporarily), indeed, it might well profit some nations with a major oil and gas industry if they have to make up the loss in Russian oil and gas (assuming they can still keep up with domestic demand). Using sanctions against a nation to increase the gains from one’s own stocks of oil and gas at the expense of other nations is, however, probably not the best way to conduct international relations.
Smaller nations, such as New Zealand, can only lose from joining in with economic sanctions. This week NZ’s Trade Minister was recalled from Russia, cutting short a series of talks over a free trade agreement between the two nations. These talks have been ongoing for the past three years, and would seem to have been nearing a close.6 The completion of this free trade agreement is now a matter for another time, and according to the New Zealand Herald article on it, could be shelved permanently. Russia is not an insignificant trading partner for N.Z., so the potential to lose three years worth of diplomatic effort is very much a negative to N.Z.
For all the talk above, something still needs to happen to solve the crisis. What that something should be varies on whom one asks—I have seen a number of things that suggest hurting Russia is the only solution,7 including one opinion piece that calls for the complete isolation of Russia from the international community8—yet most agree that it can’t be ignored. Personally, I see the calls to hurt Russia (be that economically, diplomatically, or otherwise) as short-sighted and, dare I say it, a bit petty and vindictive (and in the interest of fairness, I also see the Russian reaction to Ukraine wanting closer ties with the E.U. as a bit petty and vindictive). I also have doubts that isolating Russia from the international community (at any level) is going to have a great outcome.
Part of the problem is that Russia can’t just go “oh, okay, we’ll leave the Crimea alone now” without appearing weak, which would undermine its position in the world. Another part of the problem is that, rationally or not, there will be people, perhaps even a majority of people, who, as Russian citizens and Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine, feel afraid of being left to the whim of a new government, or feel they’ll be neglected as a group under new rule. There’s also the problem that there seems to be a perception of absolute choice; either Ukraine works with Russia, or it works with the E.U., not both. As long as that one-or-the-other perception exists, Ukraine will be divided.
Personally, I believe the first course of action should be to convene a group to, in the short-term, monitor the situation, and help guarantee the rights and safety of all groups in Ukraine. My suggestion for such a group would be 15 people; five from Ukraine, with one from the Crimea; five from the E.U., with one from the U.K. (to also represent U.S. interests), and five from Russia. Ideally all members of this group would be chosen to properly represent Ukraine, Russia, and the E.U., and not be members of current governments of those nations.
Simultaneously, meetings involving the appropriate heads of state/government for Russia, Ukraine, and the E.U. should be held, with the aim of putting in place agreements between the E.U. and Ukraine, and Russia and Ukraine, covering much, if not all, of what was in previous agreements. If Russia and the E.U. can work together, they could both benefit, and with Ukraine as a trading hub between the two, Ukraine too could gain substantially from such a dual agreement.
In return, Russia should withdraw its military (excluding the Black Sea fleet), leaving the task of guaranteeing the safety of Russian citizens to the group convened for the task, but a referendum in the Crimea on the issue of seceding from Ukraine should be allowed to go ahead, if that is what the Crimea wants. If Russia believes a complete withdrawal leaves its interests (i.e. the Black Sea fleet) at risk, then an allowance to station some extra personnel on the navy base would be in order. Better still would be if both Russia and Ukraine can agree on a neutral third party who would be willing to provide a small force to guard both the Russian and Ukrainian navy bases, thereby hopefully removing some of the tension that would still exist between the militaries. Such a proposal would allow Russia to withdraw without appearing weak, having managed to extract a guarantee of safety and self-determination of the Russian citizens it is ostensibly there to protect.
Of course, that alone wouldn’t solve all the problems overnight, and it would be but the first move of a long game. Indeed, a game it would be, for both sides know that in the end, Ukraine is but the board for a much older and bigger game, that of global influence. However, that is no reason to not play along, and perhaps Russia and the E.U. can actually work together to the benefit of all, if they would but try.1 http://www.nzherald.co.nz/world/news/article.cfm?c_id=2&objectid=11213803 2 http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/03/02/g-7-leaders-statement 3 http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-03-01/obama-tells-putin-g-8-planning-halted-during-call-about-ukraine.html 4 https://twitter.com/David_Cameron/status/440175192913227776 5 http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/03/uk-seeks-russia-harm-city-london-document 6 http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11213328 7 http://www.nzherald.co.nz/opinion/news/article.cfm?c_id=466&objectid=11213214 8 http://www.mediaite.com/online/krauthammer-was-right-u-s-should-have-boycotted-sochi-olympics/