The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Former Duck Gets Riled Up by Ukraine Coverage

March 2, 2014

For some smart commentary on what’s going down in the Ukraine and how (not) to cover it, I point you to former Duck Dan Nexon on his personal blog (*and also cross-posted below). Dan knows a thing or two about the region having served in the Russia/Ukraine/Eurasia regional office in the Office of the Secretary Defense as a CFR International Affairs Fellow in 2009-2010.

Here, Dan bemoaned the coverage in the WaPo of the Ukraine crisis by one Scott Wilson. Wilson lambasted the Obama administration’s strategy in the Ukraine writing that:

The signal Obama has sent — popular among his domestic political base, unsettling at times to U.S. allies — has been one of deep reluctance to use the heavily burdened American military, even when doing so would meet the criteria he has laid out. He did so most notably in the aftermath of the U.S.-led intervention in Libya nearly three years ago.

Dan’s post and related ones are worth a read. Dan’s problem with the logic of the piece is, unsurprisingly, smart, and, yes, I’m going to sound like a fanboy:

There’s no obvious counterfactual set of Obama policies that would better position the United States to handle Russia’s gambit in Ukraine.

Moreover, it’s not as if demonstrations of more resolve earlier (pace Daryl Press) would have necessarily changed the current outcome. Dan writes:

Indeed, this lack of any correlation between American ‘resolve’ and Russian aggression is, in fact, pretty consistent with the evidence from international-relations scholarship. That evidence suggests that a government’s display of resolve in one setting has, at best, a rather attenuated relationship with later estimates of its willingness to use force.

Finally, the other bit that I thought especially salient was his takedown that Obama has been insufficiently attuned to realpolitik:

At the same time, it isn’t clear that adopting a more “realist” posture points in the direction Wilson thinks it does. After all, the baseline realpolitik approach would be to let Russia have its sphere of influence in Ukraine and the North Caucuses. Wilson, on the other hand, seems to think the test here is whether the Obama Administration is insufficiently aggressive when it comes to liberal-democratic enlargement and a commitment to aggressive hegemonism.

I’ll try to weigh in with some thinking of my own on this. Coverage on Twitter suggests limited options, that nobody is prepared to go to war with Russia over the Ukraine. Travel bans on Russian officials and a decision en masse to not attend the G-8 meeting in Sochi are probably symbolic and won’t alter Russia’s decision calculus.

I also wonder aloud if partition and secession of Crimea might not be a bad thing. Crimea only became part of the Ukraine in 1954. Given that a majority of people in Crimea are ethnic Russians and would prefer to be part of Russia, would this be enough to satisfy Russian concerns about ethnic Russians in the Ukraine?

Given the large populations of ethnic Russians in other parts of eastern Ukraine, possibly not, but this is a situation where the West has limited options. If the future of the Ukraine is possibly Russian domination or something worse a la Syria (though Georgia’s semi-cleaving might be more likely), both Ukranianians and the international community might want to think about how this ends as well as possibly for them. Much of the Ukraine staying in the Western fold would still be an improvement, right?

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Joshua Busby is an Associate Professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin. He is the author of Moral Movements and Foreign Policy (Cambridge, 2010) and the co-author, with Ethan Kapstein, of AIDS Drugs for All: Social Movements and Market Transformations (Cambridge, 2013). His main research interests include transnational advocacy and social movements, international security and climate change, global public health and HIV/ AIDS, energy and environmental policy, and U.S. foreign policy. He also tends to blog about global wildlife conservation.