There is little the U.S. can do about Crimea

political analysis by Dr. Eric Baker

Editor's note: This commentary is part of a collaboration between the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith and The City Wire to deliver an ongoing series of political-based essays and reports. Dr. Eric Baker joined the UAFS faculty in 2008 and has a doctorate in political science from the University of Florida. He teaches several different courses in the political science department, including American National Government, State and Local Government, The American Presidency, Public Policy, and International Relations. Baker previously taught at the University of Richmond in Virginia and East Carolina University in North Carolina.

Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s). They may not represent the opinion of the owners of The City Wire.

In those quarters where Obama-bashing is a sport, the situation in Ukraine has given conservative commentators on Fox News and elsewhere more ammunition to bash President Obama.

The tone has almost been hysterical and certainly bizarre. The arguments generally come down to Obama’s “weakness” on the foreign stage which encouraged Russian President Putin to send troops into Crimea. Strangely, as they mock Obama’s supposed indecisiveness, they seem actually to admire Putin, an autocrat, for his decisiveness.

For example, Sean Hannity of Fox News said that for the first time he was “humiliated” of his nation because Obama was getting his “butt kicked” by former KGB man Putin on the world stage.

Former Alaska Governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin puts her two cents in when she practically questions the president’s manhood. She remarks that Obama wears “mom jeans” (whatever those are), while a more virile Putin “wrestles bears” and “drills for oil.”

This is strange considering that many of these conservative commentators were more than forgiving of President Bush in 2008 when the Russians invaded Georgia.

Another theme is that Obama is not doing enough to get the Russians out of Ukraine. as if he could will the Russians out of territory half way around the world. Hannity calls for missile defenses to be placed in Poland and the Czech Republic. How this would get the Russians out of Crimea he conveniently leaves unanswered.For her part, Palin laments the cuts to the military budget, implying that a bigger U.S. military would deter the Russians from pursuing their own geopolitical interests. Again, there is a shortage of reasons why this would help. If we had more military assets on hand, is she seriously implying that we would actually go to war over a small peninsula in the Black Sea?

The reality is that the Obama administration is pretty much doing what it can do. Calling the occupation of Crimea what it is, an invasion, the administration has moved to isolate Russia economically and politically. But these probably won’t force Putin out of Crimea, nor prevent him from taking over eastern Ukraine if he so chooses. The reasons are geopolitical and historic.

Crimea was a part of Russia until 1954, when the Soviet government transferred Crimea to Ukraine, then a province of the Soviet Union. The population in Crimea and eastern Ukraine is largely of Russian ethnicity and language. They are pro-Russian and want to rejoin Russia. Western Ukraine, however, is mainly ethnic Ukrainians and look to the European Union as a model.

The Russians are afraid Ukraine will join the European Union, and possibly even NATO. In that scenario, NATO would be on Russia’s doorstep. Given Russia’s history of invasion from the West, the possibility of losing the strategic buffer of Ukraine is intolerable.

Russia’s only warm water port, which the Russian navy can sail from year round, is in Crimea at Sevastopol. They were already leasing that from the Ukrainians, and it is unlikely Putin would surrender it.

Despite the rants and Obama-bashing of pundits like Hannity and Palin, the United States and her allies have few good options. Military action, though unlikely, would be a disaster. We could impose sanctions, but then the Russians could deny much needed natural gas to Western Europe. The Europeans don’t want that.

One solution may be to allow Crimea and perhaps eastern Ukraine to secede from the rest of Ukraine in as peaceful a manner as possible, similar to the negotiated separation of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

But perhaps the best solution is to do nothing, and allow Putin to hang himself. Russia is a thin veneer of the former Soviet Union. The occupation of Crimea is a sign of weakness, not of strength.