A realistic foreign policy is based not on Santa’s list of who is naughty or nice, but on interests. What are America’s interests in the Crimea or in all of Ukraine for that matter? It has only one: maintaining a good relationship with Russia.
It matters not a fig to America who controls the Crimea or Ukraine. These are local issues, of concern only to the locals. We should no more be preparing to take action over what Russia does there than Russia took action over our invasions of Grenada or Panama. Those places were in our sphere; Crimea and the Ukraine are in Russia’s.
In contrast, it is important to our interests to have a good working relationship with Russia. We need Russian help in other parts of the world, most of which we should not be involved in but nonetheless are. Russia is a major exporter of oil; a sudden tightening of the oil market could wreak havoc on our economy. The most important interest at stake in our relations to Russia, and it is a very important one indeed, is the fact that Russia holds Christendom’s vast flank that stretches from the Black Sea to Vladivostok. Islam, our common and deadly enemy, is pressing north along much of that flank. We need to make sure it holds, which means Russia merits our friendship and support, not “sanctions”.
Russia, America, and Europe share a common interest in ensuring that events in Ukraine do not generate ripples. While the likelihood of a 1914-style ladder of escalation appears small, all three parties need to work to keep it small. How fortunate America is to have the prudent, conservative (in foreign policy) Mr. Obama in office instead of a howler for war such as the senator from Hell, Mr. McCain, or his faithful Tonto the senator from Heck, Mr. Graham. The situation demands similar prudence on the part of President Putin and Chancellor Merkel.
The latter has regrettably been showing signs of forgetting a basic rule of central European diplomacy, namely that when Russia and Germany are allied both do well and when they are in opposition both do badly. The realism that seems to occupy the Russian Foreign Ministry might hit on a way to compel Frau Merkel to take a moderate course: compensation. Compensation is what traditional diplomacy would have offered Germany, as the primary European power. In return for absorbing the Crimea (and Russia should not try to take more, at least at present), Russia should offer Russian-held East Prussia to Germany. The Kaliningrad Oblast is a strategic liability to Russia, and offering it to Germany would put Frau Merkel in an interesting position, especially since many Germans who vote for the CDU would very much like to have Königsberg again. It would also royally sock it to the Poles.
A traditional, realistic Great Power approach appears to offer America’s interests, and Russia’s and Germany’s, the best protection in the Ukrainian crisis. However, it still falls short of the orientation all three Powers should share. That is the realization that in the face of the threat of Fourth Generation war to the state system as a whole, all three, and every other state too, should be setting aside the competition among states in favor of unity in defense of the state system. From that perspective, the current situation does echo 1914, where three monarchies that clung to an outdated paradigm, that of dynastic competition, doomed each other. The power of 4GW, vastly underestimated in all foreign ministries, is such that states that refuse to unite against it may similarly doom themselves. It may not look like that at the moment, but at the beginning of a paradigm shift, it never does.