04/09/2014 06:01 pm ET Updated Jun 09, 2014

Crimea: Russian Aggression or Realpolitik?

Written by Rick Feinberg

The crisis of the year -- at least so far -- is Russia's annexation of Crimea. Roundly condemned by both the U.S. and EU, it has been likened to Hitler's invasion of Sudetenland and Poland. Commentators across the political spectrum have denounced it as naked aggression and a violation of international law. We have imposed economic sanctions, with the promise of more. Pundits describe it as the start of a new Cold War, and some have even called for military action.

As an anthropologist, I try to see the world through other people's eyes. It is often an instructive exercise. If we consider the events in Ukraine and Crimea from the viewpoint of Russian president Vladimir Putin, his actions don't seem all that different from those of other world leaders, including many of our own.

Ukraine is Russia's next-door neighbor, and it is a large, important territory. It also is politically divided, with power shifting back and forth between those favoring alliance with the EU and those wanting closer ties with Russia. In 2010, pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych was elected president. The vote was fairly close, but international observers generally considered it to have been fair.

The EU tried to woo the Yanukovych government with financial aid and a free trade agreement. Russia, concerned about losing an ally on its doorstep, responded by offering its own aid package.

Yanukovych's acceptance of the Russian offer prompted protest demonstrations. At length, he agreed to compromise on economic issues and declared that when his term expired in early 2015 he would not seek reelection. The protestors, however, were unwilling to wait and forced him out of office. If that happened in, say, Canada, we undoubtedly would label it a coup and worry about what was to come -- despite being perfectly aware that Canada would not invade the US.

Crimeans, most of whom are ethnic Russians, grew apprehensive, especially when the new government passed legislation to suppress use of their language. That legislation was revoked, but the damage was done. Crimeans demanded autonomy and looked to Russia for protection. Putin would have lost all credibility both in Russian and Crimeans eyes if he stood idly by. As the days wore on, Crimeans felt increasingly vulnerable and held a referendum requesting to join the Russian Federation. Ninety-seven percent voted to affiliate with Russia.

Outside observers have legitimate concerns:

  • One may question whether the referendum was free and fair. Yet, even Western media agree that Crimean sentiment overwhelmingly supported joining Russia. Significantly, we made no offer to send monitors to help ensure a fair election. Instead, Western leaders challenged the idea of holding any referendum. Is this Russian aggression or support of self-determination?
  • One may question Russia encouraging Crimea to separate from Ukraine. But Crimeans felt that they were under threat from Kiev. In similar circumstances we have supported the separation of South Sudan from Sudan, of Bosnia from Serbia, of East Timor from Indonesia.
  • One may well object to Putin sending troops into Crimea to protect the ethnic Russians living there. But we used the same argument in 1983 as grounds for sending troops into Grenada. In the 1960s, we sent troops to the Dominican Republic. In 1953, the CIA helped engineer a coup against Mohammad Mosaddeq, the democratically-elected leader of Iran. In 1961, we backed the Bay of Pigs invasion in an attempt to depose Fidel Castro. And, during the Reagan years, we supported the Contras in Nicaragua. These incursions have been defended on grounds of protecting our citizens and national interests. But isn't Putin doing the same?
  • One may object to Russia annexing Crimea after taking it by force. But isn't that how we got California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Hawaii? At least Crimea was historically a part of Russia. We can't make that claim about the states we took from Mexico. And Hawaii was an independent kingdom before being overthrown in 1893 with the backing of U.S. marines.

This is not to say that Putin is a nice guy. He's an authoritarian bully who imprisons those who criticize his policies. His underlings may well be guilty of political assassinations. And Yanukovych seems to have been thoroughly corrupt. But Putin has been acting rationally, protecting his country and its citizens against perceived threats to their interests by an important next-door neighbor. That is very different from invading hostile territories, or purposefully precipitating a war with the West, whether hot or cold. It's not a pretty picture, but it seems we are, to say the least, overreacting to behavior typical of any major power -- behavior in which we have, ourselves, repeatedly engaged.

Of course, the fact that we have acted in that way does not entail that it is right... or even legal. Still, before we get caught up in further saber-rattling, perhaps a little humble self-reflection is in order.

Rick Feinberg is a professor of anthropology at Kent State University. He has written opinion pieces for the American Anthropological Association's Anthropology News, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Akron Beacon Journal, The Huffington Post, and other news outlets.