Power vs. Interest: Ukraine’s Dwindling Options

Posted on March 2, 2014 by


Predictions regarding Ukraine’s future following a Russian invasion (in all but name) abound, and while almost all expect bloodshed, some go as far as to predict the forthcoming apocalypse. Amidst such exclamations there have been few moderate voices, Stephen Walt and Medhi Hassan represent an inconspicuous minority. But, if one is to forgive the generalisation that most international events (especially of this ilk) are horrendously overblown and, following their conclusions, only remembered by wonks and their victims—in Ukraine, surely when no shots have been fired more moderate expectations might be appropriate?

Indeed, the great majority of prognoses simplify or take no notice of what Putin’s aims might be. Fundamentally, the avoidance of conflict is to his favour—it is important to note that Ukrainian military installations were occupied, not shelled, as is the traditional practice. An optimal situation would be a successful referendum (already demanded on the 27th of February) under the auspices of Russian occupation, then the transferral of Crimea to either sovereign status akin to Abkhazia and South Ossetia (the breakaway regions of Georgia, recognised by Russia and few others following their 2008 war) or to gradual membership of the Russian Federation. All that stands in the way is the potential for a NATO, EU, or Ukrainian response. Given their nascent administration, the likelihood of Ukraine attacking Russian forces is slim without steadfast assurance of Western help. Though Poland and Lithuania, both ex-Soviet states, have called for an emergency meeting of NATO claiming (with some basis) that their security interests are threatened, a strong international response would be a considerable divergence from the indefatigable mainstay of limp responses: Tough Talks™.

The situation in Ukraine is, to use an otherwise avoided cliché, testament to Putin’s aptitude for Machiavellian politics. As another commentator wrote, “Whatever else one might think about Putin, he has done the world a favour reminding us how international politics really work.” In a world in which the structure of international norms make territorial land-grabs a political faux pas, Putin has delivered a crisis from which he’ll likely reap the benefits (not only Crimea, but again painting the EU and NATO as impotent), having dressed it as best he can as Kosovo in reverse—a unilateral partition as requested by the populace. As Stephen Walt writes, Ukraine is a “classic tradeoff,” for while the US is stronger overall, “Russia cares more and is right next door. It’s power vs. interest, & here interest trumps.”

CC image courtesy of Taras Gren, Wikimedia.