By Olga Oliker, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Olga Oliker is associate director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. The views expressed are her own.
Russian troops appear in control of Crimea. Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly said “the possibility still exists” that Russian forces could be sent deeper into Ukraine to defend the rights of protesting ethnic Russians. Russia’s much-voiced belief in principles of sovereignty, it seems, have been trumped by its long-held view that ethnic Russians must be protected, wherever they may live.
Two competing narratives are at work. In the narrative heard in the United States and Europe, democracy-seeking protesters forced Russia’s puppet president from office and are building a new government, which represents Ukraine’s Western values. In Russia’s narrative, a freely elected government was illegally deposed as a result of street violence encouraged by the United States and EU. Ukraine is in chaos, with ultra-nationalists threatening ethnic Russians throughout the country. Washington and Brussels saw Russia invade Ukraine. Looking from Moscow, Russian troops are trying to bring peace and stability to a neighboring state on the verge of civil war.
In an ideal universe, all sides could come to the table to hammer out a solution in which Russian troops leave Crimea (and certainly do not go elsewhere in Ukraine), Ukraine holds free and fair elections to select a new government that represents its people, and the rights of all Ukrainians are guaranteed to the satisfaction of all parties.
But if it were that easy, the situation would not have escalated to this point.
Some believe that the United States and EU should take strong steps, including possibly the use of force (or at least moving around some military equipment and personnel) to get Russia out. They argue that in Ukraine today, the United States faces a new Munich, with Crimea as the Sudetenland. But Western military action is highly unlikely: The United States and Europe have no commitment to defend Ukraine, not because the West didn’t think this could happen, but rather because it knew that it could.
Among the myriad reasons Ukraine is not a NATO member is the fact that Western leaders have known all along that were Russia to take military action against Ukraine, the members of the alliance did not want to be obligated to fight on Kiev’s behalf a war that stood the (small but real) risk of nuclear escalation. Thus, while the West wants Russian forces out of Ukraine, it will try to attain that through diplomatic and economic means, not by adding to the troops on the ground.
This is smart policy not just because of the threat of escalation. While Russia is genuinely nervous about what has happened in Ukraine, Putin’s decision to send troops is also a statement to the West that he will have none of its bullying, and that he is willing to stand up to any sort of pressure or punishment. From a Western perspective, it makes little sense for Russia to seek to annex Crimea or East Ukraine. The occupation of the latter, at least, would over time prove painful and costly, and unless Russia moves quickly towards a political solution, it will have destroyed all hope of a reasonable relationship with the United States and the EU states going forward. But from Putin’s point of view, the deterioration of these relationships may not be such a terrible thing.
It’s possible that what Putin wants out of all this, aside from protection of Russian speakers the world over, is, if not a new Cold War, something very like one. After all, during the old Cold War, Moscow was strong, its interests respected, its prestige on par with that of Washington.
If this is indeed what Putin wants, the smart policy, and the long game, is to simultaneously show global anger at his actions while demonstrating that grabbing bits of Ukraine will not, in fact, get Russia global respect or influence.
That said, designing and implementing policies that effectively send these signals, and continue to do so over time, will be a challenge – Brussels and Washington must simultaneously avoid actions that let Russia feel it’s being treated as a dangerous enemy, but make it clear that it needs the West more than the reverse.
In the short term, it may not be possible to get Russian troops out of Crimea through economic sanctions, the freezing of assets, the exclusion of Russia from the G8 or other reasonable steps now on the table. In the long term, the United States has to make sure that the response to Russia doesn’t stop there. The United States and EU states should continue political, economic, and military cooperation with Ukraine, helping ensure that, even with Russia occupying Crimea, a new and representative government is elected, takes power, and moves forward with reforms, while respecting the rights of all ethnic groups and minorities.
Meanwhile, cooperation with Russia in other areas, including those touted as examples of the importance of the partnership, such as transport routes in and out of Afghanistan, can be scaled down wherever feasible. At the same time, actions that can be interpreted in Moscow as escalatory and that suggest that Russia poses a true threat should be avoided.
Ultimately, the door to improved relations, following the withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine, should be left open. No iron curtain should be allowed to settle over Europe. Instead, it behooves Western leaders to show Putin that the invasion of Crimea is not in his, or Russia’s, best interest.