Russia's invasion of Ukraine has set off paroxysms of frustration, anger and incredulity in the West, not least in Washington. Some policymakers and pundits are struggling with ways to constructively address the problems raised by Russian action, others struggle to ensure that somehow President Obama is blamed for these events, and many are trying to figure out the complexity, context and background of these events. Understanding the conflict in Crimea, and the best way forward for the US, requires holding several, conflicting, and often unappealing, ideas in one's head at the same time. These are four of the most important of these ideas.
Russian aggression is as bad as it seems. Russia action in Crimea is an invasion of one sovereign state by a neighbor. Although Russia has strong strategic interests in Crimea, this is not a justification for a military intervention of this kind. The ethnic Russian and other Russaphone Ukrainian citizens living in Crimea may or may not like Russia more than the west, but they are not in any physical danger from the Ukrainian government, so Russian explanations that they are ensuring the safety of those citizens should not be taken seriously. Moreover, Russia's frustration with how events in Kyiv transpired in recent months is real, but does not justify a military invasion.
The invasion of Ukraine, particularly given a similar Russian action in Georgia in 2008, makes it clear that Russia is committed to fighting in every way to retain influence in its post-Soviet periphery. Crimea is not a sui generis case for Moscow, but part of a broader vision of Russian interests and national security, one that it is demonstrably not respectful of the national sovereignty and self-determination of several of its neighbors.
The US has few, if any, effective tools to combat or stop this Russian invasion. While many in Washington would like to stop Russia, send it a message, or ensure that there are meaningful consequences for Russia's actions, there are very few options that are likely to be effective. Only living those in a fantasy world out of Dr. Strangelove would support a strong military response to Russia. The Russian military is too strong, Crimea is too far away, and the US military is still stretched too thin for that to be an option. The additional reality that US military interventions do not always turn out as the kibitzers in Washington think they will, should be recognized as well.
Numerous non-military options that either seek to financially impact Russia through sanctions and the like, or to push Russia further out of western organizations and conventions have been proposed. These are good ideas and, on balance, are worth doing, but are not likely to stop Russian leaders from doing what they want in Crimea. The US, as we have seen in recent days, does not even have the ability to ensure its biggest European allies participate in these sanctions. Given how much bigger European trade with Russia is, without the participation of major European economies, these sanctions will have limited impact. Additionally, while the US should do things like refuse to send a high level delegation to the upcoming Paralympics in Sochi and even expel Russia from the G8, this amounts to little more than kicking Russia out of a club that, with apologies to Groucho Marx, they have probably already quit.
Internal divisions in Ukraine and real and enduring. Most discussions and analysis of Ukraine have focused on the divisions in Ukraine, while some supporters of the new Ukrainian government have sought to downplay these divisions. These divisions are, however, quite real. There is a substantial proportion of the Ukrainian population that, at least before this invasion, was positively predisposed to Russia and somewhat wary of Europe. These political divisions are significantly framed by issues of national identity, such as language and contested interpretations of history. This, it must be noted, is true of many countries including relatively stable democracies, but it is a more severe problem in Ukraine because of the weakness of institutions like legislatures, elections and the rule of law. The absence of meaningful democracy in Ukraine makes this division more dangerous and a greater threat to the country's future. Furthermore, recent Ukrainian history has been dominated by leaders who have sought to have their side win, rather than to craft a new narrative and consensus about Ukraine's history and future path.
Neither US credibility nor US security is at stake in Ukraine. After the Iraq War and numerous other US interventions around the world, US credibility is much stronger in conservative think tanks and Republican senate offices than in the real world. Many outside of these closed policy loops measure American credibility not so much by a willingness to use force, but the consistency of US behavior and the relationship between US action and US rhetoric. Arguing that the US should explore military options because our credibility is at stake is a mug's game aimed at making a partisan attack rather than a constructive policy proposal.
More significantly, one of the most difficult truths about Russia's invasion of Ukraine is that American national security is in no meaningful way imperiled. US power is diminished and allies are likely to feel less secure, but this has been true for years. Moreover, the events in Ukraine are several links on a very tenuous chain away from endangering the lives of any American other than those who happen to be in Ukraine at the moment. There is a strong tendency to overstate the threat posed by actions like this invasion, not least because of the genuine feelings of outrage towards Russia and its president. Nonetheless, US decisions particularly involving the military should be made with an appropriate understanding of what is actually at stake for US security and the American people.
Understanding all four of these ideas simultaneously is essential to a full picture of the conflict. Together they demonstrate the nature of the conflict, the complexity of Ukraine and the role, position and limits confronting the US.