The crisis engulfing Crimea is a grave one. Vladimir Putin’s armies have cut the region off from the rest of the nation, and are insisting on an illegal referendum in order to give elusive legitimacy to a brazen act of aggression. Now is not the time for the West to take options off the table – even rather unpalatable ones.
Russian troops remain in place – an occupying army in all but name – surrounding key targets in the Crimean peninsula and nearby areas. This is not a friendly mission, or one which is in full compliance with international laws and agreements. The 1994 Budapest Memorandum, upon which Ukraine’s sovereign integrity is based, has been disregarded, and the new political order imperilled. That cannot stand.
Of course, finding (and successfully executing) the correct response to this invasion will be immensely difficult – and this will be the primary challenge of diplomats and Foreign Office staff in the coming days and weeks. One false move and the situation could take a dramatic and awful turn: war on the one hand, and capitulation to aggression on the other.
It is because of perilous nature of this incredibly difficult job that I beseech those in power: do not allow popular pressure, or political expediency, to shape our nation’s reaction. Take nothing off the table, even options that many of us consider too heinous to enact.
If one needed a lesson in how not to do diplomacy, see Barack Obama’s handling of the mass slaughter in Syria – or, more specifically, the specified slaughter inflicted by a certain type of weapon. American policy on Assad’s chemical weapons was a masterclass in incompetence and unintended consequences. A “Red Line” was grandly announced. Chemical weapons were – arbitrarily, and in a manner which smacked of international arrogance – declared to be the game changer. Upon this instance, we were told, America, in her infinite wisdom, would deign to intervene.
What happened next? There was a strike on the Ghouta region of Damascus. It was sarin gas. Horrific images, some depicting children, began to appear in national newspapers. The Mirror splashed on one of dead youngsters, lying in a row, their eyes softly closed; as if they were sleeping.
Nothing. America did not see fit to do anything. After a bit of huffing and puffing, and some half-hearted attempts at threatening rhetoric, the US walked away with the chemical weapons Assad was happy to give up: they had served their purpose.
Obama, the paper tiger, did nothing else. Deserted by allies – who were fighting their own internal battles against isolation – he slunk off to watch, with a mixture of apathy and powerlessness, as the death toll rose: passing 130,000 innocent lives.
In Ukraine, the situation may not be as violent: there may not be blood on the streets of Kiev (at least, not any more). This fact does not change the moral equivalency. Two major players remain constant: Obama in the White House, and Putin in the Kremlin: Assad’s dictatorial backer has decided to fight his own battles.
While the course of economic and political sanctions that the US government, and their European allies, have taken (including the politically unimportant, but nominally significant, step of kicking Russia out of the G8) has been criticised as unwise, it would be even less wise to make any promises.
Even the threat of military action – an unlikely to occur, but to some degree potent, threat – may be useful or needed later on. After all, Russia is still a pre-eminent military power, and it holds considerable regional clout. There is also the ever-present, and thoroughly worrying, threat of Putin merely switching off the gas supplies – thereby paralysing Ukraine and the whole area.
An intervention by the West is not going to happen, at least not yet. Similarly, we are unlikely to sever all diplomatic ties with Russian embassies on the back of the situation in Ukraine. However, in the fast-moving world on diplomacy and international relations, it pays to have options. Neutering oneself and one’s allies, by ruling out such options as greater political sanctions or military involvement – like Obama did over Syria – would only make things work. British politicians seem all too concerned with making us look non-threatening. Such actions would only lead to one side getting the advantage. We cannot allow the annexation and de facto colonisation of sovereign territory another meaningless “Red Line”.
James Snell is Contributing Editor for The Libertarian