Vladimir Putin has already won in Ukraine.
The pro-western movement in Kiev is basically on its own. The only question left is how far Putin will go with his intrusions, including a possible invasion of the pro-Russian East and the de facto bifurcation of the Ukrainian state. Either way, recent events on the ground have made this much abundantly clear: Nobody is going to stop Putin.
President Obama isn’t going to do anything of any consequence. America won’t leap into action over this. We will watch, as will Europe and the rest of the world, in dumbstruck impotence. And while it doesn’t feel good to say it, that’s really the only realistic option we have.
Here in America, the non-interventionist chorus as well as regional foreign policy experts are quick to point out the myriad reasons why Ukraine is not our problem, and to go beyond minimum action would be a grave mistake. So far, those voices are winning the argument and the Obama administration appears determined to feign resolve and look busy while the fourth-largest country in Europe inches towards civil war or absorption deep into Putin’s orbit.
With that in mind, here are five questions that get at the heart of the Ukraine crisis from a U.S. and European perspective. They explain the limitations on any U.S. response and are effectively a roadmap for how the Obama administration and the rest of the world will react as the Ukraine standoff with Russia continues to evolve.
1) Is Ukraine of essential strategic interest for the United States?
No, and this in many ways makes many other questions and considerations about the Ukraine crisis somewhat superfluous. Ukraine is close to NATO geographically – but not actually part of NATO – and it is merely a transit point (but not a major producer) of natural gas bound for European markets. There is no Suez Canal or Straits of Hormuz-style choke point for global energy markets at risk. So Ukraine with its 45 million people is apparently of less strategic significance than Kuwait was with its three million. Democracy and rule of law sound great, but geopolitics is a cold-blooded business.
2) Is there a way to punish Russia so badly that Putin changes his mind?
Nope. Putin’s Russia is built upon a tripod of nationalism, intimidation, and fossil fuels, and is not easily swayed by so-called “soft power.” Observers have pointed to the obvious similarities between the Russian federation’s modus operandi in Crimea today as compared to its 2008 incursion into Georgia. It looks like Putin is using the same playbook, and as South Ossetia and Abkhazia were annexed in all but name without consequence back then, why wouldn’t Putin stick with his winning formula? He will. The costs for meddling in Georgia were negligible compared to the benefits, and the same will be true from the Kremlin’s perspective on Ukraine.
Even more instructive are the limited U.S. and European options under serious consideration. The responses suggested so far by the “get tough” crowd include freezing some assets, banning overseas travel for certain individuals, and maybe moving the planned G-8 meeting from Sochi. These are the sorts of suggestions that keep think tank analysts employed, and allow our State Department and the EU bureaucrats to feel moderately useful, but in terms of efficacy they amount to shooting a .22 at a T-52.
3) Is Europe really willing to take harsh economic action against Russia anyway?
No way. For all its love of green energy and tiny cars, Europe needs fossil fuel – especially natural gas – and Russia is the single largest supplier to European markets. About a third of all European oil and gas imports comes from Moscow’s pipelines. As much as the Germans may bristle at Putin’s bullying of former Soviet states like Ukraine and general disrespect of international institutions, they want to be able to heat their homes in winter. That’s a powerful incentive to look the other way while Kiev gets cornered.
4) Does anybody think that U.S. troops should be deployed into Ukraine?
Not anyone who wants to be taken seriously. The U.S. public, tired of its own military fighting wars of liberation and reconstruction in the Middle East with mixed results, has absolutely no stomach for sending our men and women into a shooting war with Russians on the other side of the battlefield.
Despite this, many observers have pointed to Budapest Memorandum of 1994 as a possible anchor to drag the U.S. into Kiev’s mess. That’s not going to happen. The memorandum has no binding force on the U.S. or Britain, isn’t clear on what we would be bound to anyway, and ultimately, who is going to enforce it?
As an aside: Ukraine’s current conundrum serves as a lesson to all states with irredentist neighbors on their borders: if you can ever get your hands on nuclear weapons, keep them.
5) Is there any downside to the U.S. just letting the Ukraine situation play out?
This is where the debate really begins. It seems in the short-term, President Obama will hold some meetings, give a speech or two, but for all intents and purposes, refuse any real action on Ukraine, and it won’t matter one bit for now.
The question of long-term impact on U.S. national security and global stability, however, requires a more complicated if not contentious answer.
An America whose word isn’t trusted and whose influence is waning leaves the world more open to conflict. Obama’s much derided “Leading from Behind” in Libya has transformed into “observing from behind” in Eurasia. The President of the United States – and the Commander-in-Chief of the most powerful military in history – promised grave consequences on Friday afternoon if Putin did exactly what he chose to do mere hours later with his non-lethal invasion of Crimea. Nothing happened. Such brazen slaps in the face to the world’s lone superpower are an indicator of grave troubles down the road.
Today, Ukraine has problems and we don’t have to care. Putin will not stop there, though, and the autocrats of Beijing, Tehran, and other tyrants across the world are closely watching the response of an America that seems uncertain of its role and tired of its principles once we reach the water’s edge.
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