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Members of the Crimean pro-Russian self-defense forces climb up to take down a Ukrainian flag, right, and a Ukrainian navy flag, left, at the Ukrainian navy headquarters in Sevastopol, Crimea, Wednesday, March 19, 2014. In center is a Russian flag. (Andrew Lubimov/AP)

The Ukrainian paradox is not a math problem. It has more to do with chess than equations. The short version goes something like this: the greater our ability to hurt Russia, the greater the incentive Moscow has to push back in order to deter the further imposition of costs, and thus the danger is that this will escalate in ways where both the U.S. and Russia end up losers.

This runs counter to our intuition (and the current narrative) that we must stand up to Russia and make it pay for its actions. In other words, this idea is going to take a little explaining.

Let me be clear. I detest Putin. Always have. The former KGB agent has stayed in power through a series of electoral manipulations that are doubtless admired by autocrats everywhere. No, he’s not the worst dictator ever (he’s got nothing on Stalin or even Syria’s Assad), but I’ve never liked him, and there can be no question that his invasion of Crimea violates international law, and that the recent referendum is a sham. The fact that he seems to be positioning Russia as a religiously orthodox, conservative counter-balance to the West is a troubling to say the least.

There is no doubt that Russia is the wrongdoer in this story, but acting on justified moral offense rather than clear eyed strategic interest is more likely to increase the price we all pay.

And while I have been a critic of President Obama’s foreign policy, the notion that recent events in Crimea are Obama’s fault — the consequence of “weakness” — is just sad. If only we had bombed Syria or Iran, the argument goes, none of this would have happened. Purveyors of this baloney apparently know little about history and geography and even less about strategy. No wonder a number of foreign policy hands have urged critics to cease and desist during a moment of potential crisis. (Yeah, like that’s going to happen.)

In contrast, many who actually wrestled with the Soviets during the Cold War (and more than a few of them respected scholars) have pointed out the obvious: Crimea was once part of Russia. Russia has a military base in Crimea. It is a peninsula, hanging like an over ripe pear that was easy for Russia to pluck and hold. And frankly, there are extreme nationalists and fascists that were part of the Ukrainian opposition, though Putin wildly exaggerates their importance. Russia, having been invaded by the Nazis, is especially sensitive to what happens on its borders and prefers benign buffer states that can insulate it from potential aggressors.

Finally, Russia feels like it got scammed. Contrary to its expectations following the breakup of the Soviet Union, NATO and the West have progressively pushed east to Poland and the Baltic states with the result that NATO (i.e. the perceived enemy) has come ever closer to its border. Imagine if Russia set up camp, complete with military deployments, in Mexico or the Caribbean. (Oh, wait, you mean like Cuba in 1962?)

It doesn’t hurt Putin that this move is popular at home. Even Putin’s critics feel the sting of an empire lost and yearn for a return to respect. Many Russians believe that Crimea is part of Russia, so the domestic politics favor Putin’s land grab, at least for now.

That enthusiasm may fade over time when the full costs are accounted for. It will have the effect of revitalizing NATO, scaring the bejesus out of countries on its periphery, insuring that the rest of Ukraine will lean West (especially now that a large pro-Russian constituency is out of the picture) and potentially create a situation where minorities in the new Crimea (Tartars and others) take up opposition. Putin’s recent speech on Crimea underlines his concern about the Tartars. And oh, by the way, the folks in South Ossetia and Abkhazia that Russia wrested away from Georgia in 2008 have not exactly prospered.

Whatever those costs, Ukraine is a vital interest to Russia, and great powers will pay high costs to defend vital interests. Strong words and weak sanctions are not going to force Russia to relent, especially when our European allies are less than excited about picking a fight. Simply put, Russia cares more about this than we do. And as long as they do not overplay their hand and march into eastern Ukraine, the status quo will hold.

Which brings us to the Ukrainian Paradox. With any luck, this will blow over the same way the 2008 war in Georgia did, that is, without irreparable harm to the U.S.-Russian relationship. After all, the day before the invasion of Crimea, how many people were talking about Russia’s far more violent annexation of parts of Georgia? How many people were lamenting the return of the Cold War? Answer: nobody.

But 2014 may not be 2008. Already there are reports that as much as $50 billion in capital has left Russia in the span of a few weeks. If the U.S., despite Euro anxiety, is actually able to impose big costs on Russia, Moscow may feel compelled to respond, even at the risk of worsening the crisis. If it does, we could see a deepening of the rift, where each side imposes penalties on the other without actually being able to achieve its policy goals. That’s lose-lose, not win-lose nor win-win.

With any luck, this will blow over the same way the 2008 war in Georgia did, that is, without irreparable harm to the U.S.-Russian relationship.

For the U.S., it could mean problems in negotiations with Iran or in resolving the Syrian chemical weapons issue. I still think this is unlikely and that cooler heads will prevail, but the irony is clear. The more we can hurt Russia, the greater the incentive they will have to respond in kind, even as they refuse to budge on what they see as a core interest.

The popular view, one part sanctimony and one part naiveté, is that we have to punish the wrongdoers. There is no doubt that Russia is the wrongdoer in this story, but acting on justified moral offense rather than clear eyed strategic interest is more likely to increase the price we all pay. In addition, it would accomplish nothing for the Ukrainians and could produce a serious crisis that neither the U.S. nor Russia is ready for.

Russia is doing enough harm to itself with its illegal invasion. Let’s step out of the way and avoid the Ukrainian Paradox, for our own sake.

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Tags: Security

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  • rickrabin

    And those who would punish Russia on a moral basis should look to the history of U.S. interference in other countries – Nicaragua, Guatemala, Chile, Congo, Haiti, Iraq, etc., etc. – going back well over 100 years and up to the present time.

  • samuelpepys

    I’d just like to argue with one point: “there is no doubt Russia is the wrongdoer in this story.” There is in fact plenty of doubt. People just as intelligent, credentialed and well-informed as you have raised serious doubts, and done it well. It seems unlikely that you haven’t read what they have to say, since it’s your field. So why would you erase them from existence like that? And who do you take your readers for, Mr. Walsh, that you think you can say that and no one will protest?

    I have no side to take, except the side that holds that we do not erase other views in order to make our own known, however lucid and valuable they may be, and yours of course are.

    • EastCoastElitist

      > People just as intelligent, credentialed and well-informed as you have raised serious doubts, and done it well.

      Who are those people? Names and links to their arguments, please.

      • samuelpepys

        I sent you a Reply immediately, but I see it doesn’t appear. Peculiar. No time to provide you with links but surely you can Google them up! Off the top of my head, and across the political spectrum: Uri Avnery, Paul Craig Roberts, Robert Perry, Noam Chomsky…. They take seriously the fact that Crimea has only been part of the Ukraine for 22 years, and that it’s people are Russian-speaking and voted overwhelmingly to join Russia. I don’t have a side myself. I just take exception to pundits claiming “there is no doubt” when there is. It feels a bit…totalitarian?

  • David Kimball

    Why is this issue so much about the US vs Russia, or even the Ukrain vs Russia? It seems to me that it’s about Crimea vs the Ukrain. It seems that Ukrain started this mess by outlawing the Russian language in Crimea where a majority of the people are of Russian descent and are Russian speaking. This was after an illegal coup where the winners are questionable victors. Then, in response, Crimea wanted to become separated from the Ukrain. So they took a vote. If they were really an autonomous region, they had the right to take a vote to separate from the Ukrain.

    Yet Obama and all the war-mongering politicians are looking at this only as an opportunity for the US to go head-to-head with Russia. I don’t see any of the politicians (nor the media journalists) even mentioning the desires of the people of Crimea.

    Because of this lack of bringing in the Crimea vs Ukrain into the picture, I am suspect of the real motives of the war-mongers.

  • anon

    There is “no doubt” b/c Russia used military force. That violates international law regardless of the merit of their political argument. The Ukraine border was internationally recognized — by the UN, etc.

  • Israel Glez.

    Ok, Russia is the “wrongdoer” due to its illegal invasion. Then, what’s US with its own illegal invasion to Iraq or Afganisthan? Oh wait Mr. Walsh!!, maybe it was not an illegal invasion, but Mass Assassination Action. Do you remember how many innocent people you bombed? Do you remember how many blood you spread with your weapons? You’d better take care or stop your war monger feelings, you’re a public person, your opinion affects your readers’ judgments, it seems you invite your readers to hate Russia and claim for a US-Russia war…God, please forgive Mr. Walsh, he doesn’t know what he do.

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