America's State Department and intelligence services have been humiliated by the rapid action of Vladimir Putin in occupying the Crimean Peninsula. Even days after the invasion, the West seems to be reacting in slow motion compared to the rapid developments in the Black Sea region.
Russia moved heavy mobile artillery into the Crimean city of Sevastopol on Monday, while the U.S. announced that it would cancel an official government delegation to the Sochi Paralympic Games. The Russian fleet ordered the surrender of native Ukrainian military units in Crimea while NATO held a big meeting to decide not to do anything at the moment.
The disparity between the actions of Russia and the reactions of the U.S., EU, and NATO demonstrate the impotence of the West in dealing with this situation. Here in the U.S., that impotence gets magnified because of the Obama administration's repeated attacks on critics who warned about the dangers of Putin's ambitions for years. In 2012, Mitt Romney named Russia as our number one geopolitical foe, which drew derision from President Obama during a debate. "The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back," Obama told Romney, "because the Cold War's been over for 20 years." Kerry insisted then that Romney's statement was "a preposterous notion," and that it sounded to Kerry like Romney had "only seen Russia by watching Rocky IV." Romney doesn't sound quite so preposterous today.
Add to that the notorious "reset button" Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented to Sergei Lavrov just months after Russia seized South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia, and it adds up to a "fantasy world," as The Washington Post editorial board put it. "For five years," the editors scolded, "President Obama has led a foreign policy based more on how he thinks the world should operate than on reality. … Unfortunately, Russian President Vladimir Putin has not received the memo on 21st-century behavior."
Indeed, as the confused and impotent reactions of the past few days have demonstrated, this has left the U.S. and its allies with no preparation for real-world events and little capacity to respond to them.
The incursion of Russia into Crimea threatens to undermine not just the relative peace since the end of the Cold War, but also the very principles of sovereignty and the definition of the state.
While Crimea spent more than two centuries being Russian — and centuries prior to that dominated by the Turks — the peninsula has been part of Ukraine since the 1950s, when Nikita Khruschev administratively transferred it to the then-Soviet republic. After independence, Crimea stayed in Ukraine, while Moscow and Kiev contracted to have the Russian navy at its Black Sea base. No one disputed the sovereignty of Ukraine over Crimea until a popular uprising toppled the Moscow-friendly oligarchy last month. Yet Russia now claims to act as the protector of ethnic Russians as justification for occupying the Crimean Peninsula — against the wishes of Crimean Tatars — and possibly most of eastern Ukraine soon.
It doesn't take a genius to figure out how dangerous this could be in a region of former Soviet satellites. According to the CIA World Factbook, ethnic Russians comprise 17.3 percent of Ukraine's population. Nine percent of Georgia's population speaks Russian as a first language. In the formerly Soviet Baltic states of Estonia (24.8 percent ethnic Russian) and Latvia (26.2 percent), the issue is more acute. Together with Lithuania (only 5.8 percent ethnic Russian) they form a bridge to the disconnected Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea. With their large Russian populations — a vestige of decades of Soviet occupation — it's not difficult to imagine that Putin could create a pretext for action by stirring up unrest among ethnic minorities there, although those two states were wise enough to join NATO soon after their independence. Despite the current inept response from NATO, it's almost impossible to imagine that Russia could get away with that kind of play.
Russia may not be the only country watching this precedent, either. The Balkan wars largely settled the deconstruction of the former Yugoslavia at the expense of Serbia, which fought to control its former provinces. If mistreatment of ethnic minorities justifies military occupation, how long before a future expansionist Serbian regime starts making trouble in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where ethnic Serbs comprise 37 percent of the population? Or Montenegro, which is 32 percent ethnic Serbs and has access to the Adriatic?
Over the weekend, Kerry dismissed Putin as a man trapped in the 19th century. It looks much more as though this administration didn't pay enough attention to the lessons of the 20th century, and it's getting us off to a bad start in the 21st century. The West had better wake up to the real world and find its collective voice — and fast.