Why Russia does what it can and Ukraine will suffer what it must

By Avram Lytton:


At the moment of writing, Russian troops have completed a de facto annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. Ukrainian military installations are holding out but are under siege. A referendum is to be held in a few days to determine whether the Crimea should join the Russian Federation or not. The outcome seems certain. Meanwhile, Russia has refused to recognise the government in Kiev and has proceeded with a rolling series of military drills. Pro-Russian agitation, small in numbers, but likely supported by Moscow, has continued in parts of Eastern Ukraine. This provides the Kremlin with a flimsy excuse, should it choose to exercise it, to invade and annex other parts of the country as well.

Is the West ready to stand up to these unprovoked acts of Russian aggression?

The short answer is no. US Secretary of State John Kerry recently decried Russian behaviour as being from the ‘nineteenth century’[1] while numerous others have declared Vladimir Putin to be crazy, irrational or impulsive. Western leaders should understand that Putin’s decision making is neither irrational nor somehow archaic, it is firmly planted in deep historical truths. When the Austrian Emperor Charles VI died in 1740, leaving his empire to his young daughter Maria Theresa, it did not take long for Frederick II of Prussia to invade Silesia in a blatant land grab. Legality mattered little when there was a woman on the throne and wealthy provinces up for grabs. Going further back, to Thucydides, one of the first historians, the exercise of power is illustrated starkly in his famous Melian dialogue. When Athens, in the midst of confrontation with Sparta, demanded that the (nominally) neutral island of Melos pay tribute or be destroyed, the Melians stood firm on moral, legal and religious grounds. The Athenians made the case that no one, including the gods, would come to the aid of Melos and that in reality, ‘the strong do as they can and the weak suffer what they must’.[2] Melos resisted, and Melos was destroyed.

So it is with Ukraine. Some have compared Russian interventionism now with western actions in Kosovo, Iraq, Libya and so on.[3] This argument is absurd. Recent western interventionism, while sometimes misguided, was largely based on humanitarian principles and was transient in nature. Conversely, Putin’s land grab in Ukraine is not based on anything other than the desire to increase Russian power and influence. There is no threatened Russian minority, there are no fascists coming to power in Kiev, just familiar politicians such as the newly freed Yulia Tymoshenko. The lease on the Russian naval base at Sevastopol was not threatened until it was used as a springboard to occupy the whole of the Crimea. There is no crisis except that created by the Kremlin, using the recent upheaval in Kiev as a pretext, in order to justify its bald faced exercise of power.

How should the West respond?

As illustration, I will provide another example from antiquity. In 168 BC, as the Seleucid King Antiochus IV led his army to Alexandria and looked about to triumph over his enemy, the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt, he was approached by a Consul of the Roman Republic. Drawing a line in the sand, the Consul made Antiochus understand that if he continued on to Alexandria, he would have war with Rome. The Seleucid army withdrew.[4] Like Antiochus IV, Vladimir Putin is rational and he knows that he cannot win a military showdown with the West (the United States). That is why such a scenario needs to be credibly threatened. A tripwire force in Ukraine proper could accomplish this, words and weak economic threats most likely will not.

However, it does not appear that anything like this is in the offing. I have written before about the risk aversion that guides the foreign policy of the Obama administration,[5] and I doubt that will change. Diplomacy is the only tool in the arsenal of the Obama White House. The trouble with this is that diplomacy follows events on the ground. If Putin is getting what he wants through the exercise of power, then there is little incentive to negotiate. The Crimea is lost, but the rest of Ukraine can still be salvaged. Limits could be put on Russian expansion and sanctions could be put in place to apply pressure on the Kremlin. Perhaps then diplomacy might accomplish something. At the moment, however, Putin is strong and the West chooses to be weak.

Avram Lytton is a PhD student in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. His research focuses on British intelligence assessments during the First World War.



[1] http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/03/02/us-ukraine-crisis-usa-kerry-idUSBREA210DG20140302 (accessed 3 March, 2014)
2] http://www.gutenberg.org/files/7142/7142-h/7142-h.htm#link2HCH0017 (accessed 3 March, 2014)
[3] http://strifeblog.org/2014/03/02/vox-populi-vox-dei-a-few-words-on-ukraine-crimea-and-the-west/ (accessed 3 March, 2014)
[4] http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/txt/ah/Livy/Livy45.html (accessed 3 March, 2014)
[5] http://strifeblog.org/2013/11/16/why-failures-in-american-leadership-endanger-peace/ (accessed 3 March, 2014)

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