Why you should care
Because the careful balance of global security is worth walking the tightrope for.
Many smart observers of the Ukraine drama can tell you one clear thing by now: There is little we can do to reverse Russia’s takeover of Crimea.
But the odds are better than even that Putin’s not yet done. As we’ve pointed out before on OZY, few things matter more to Putin than keeping Ukraine in Russia’s “sphere of influence” and discouraging Ukraine’s evolution toward the kind of democracy that the growing Russian middle class has begun to yearn for.
The scenario recalls something Henry Kissinger said a few years ago at a conference I attended: “At no previous time in history have events in one part of the world so rapidly and decisively influenced events in other parts.”
Putin’s 2008 thrust into Georgia (and the tepid Western response) in some respects set the precedent for what has just happened in Crimea.
Read Crimea through that lens, and what do you get? A reminder that even if we put Putin on pause, the Crimean incursion could continue to reverberate—unseen and unknown to even the brightest security minds—through other regions, birthing other problems.
After all, the broader and longer-range impact of such events is often not clear for many years. Case in point: Only now is the full significance apparent of Putin’s 2008 thrust into Georgia, where two provinces remain under Russian control; that event (and the tepid Western response) in some respects set the precedent for what has just happened in Crimea.
While we may not know exactly how these events will reverberate in the future, here are three possibilities for the unseen impacts that could follow in the wake of Putin’s Crimean adventure. The security world may not have much in common with the legal profession, but precedent is one surprising similarity—except that on the global security stage, the work of interpreting and applying that precedent doesn’t lie in the hands of judges but, in some cases, with dangerous, norm-flaunting leaders and states.
The Wrong Kind of Precedent in Anti-Nuclear Movements
First: the ongoing U.S.-led effort to reduce and better secure the global store of nuclear weapons and nuclear material (the subject of a major conference led by President Obama last week in the Netherlands). At stake: Iran and North Korea (among others), both of whom have already crossed into dangerously nuclear territory. And the connection to Ukraine is this: When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, thousands of its most powerful nuclear weapons were stuck in Ukraine. Kiev considered keeping them but came under pressure to ship them back to Russian bases, where everyone thought they would be more secure. Ukraine agreed in a 1994 treaty, in which Russia and the United States promised Ukraine they would not threaten or use military force against it.
In light of Putin’s breaking of that treaty, aspiring or new nuclear powers will have cause to question whether abandoning nuclear ambitions is a wise idea. And they will have something concrete to point to when they wonder, with some justification, if Ukraine would have lost Crimea had it not made that fateful decision in 1994.
Keeping NATO Together
We must also worry about how the Crimean case might, over the longer term, affect the cohesion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), especially if getting away with Crimea tempts Putin to push at the borders of NATO countries that were once part of the Soviet Union. For Putin, few things more viscerally symbolize Russia’s post-Cold War humiliation than NATO’s survival (not to mention its enlargement to include some former parts of the Soviet Union, the Baltic nations and some former Soviet satellite countries).
Putin could create a tough dilemma for NATO, perhaps en route to fatally wounding it. He could rattle sabers toward a member country that, like Crimea, has a sizeable Russian ethnic minority (Estonia and Latvia, former members of the USSR, qualify). And if a NATO country were threatened, it could invoke Article 5 of the NATO Treaty—the agreement under which other NATO countries are pledged to come to its aid.
Article 5 is the keystone of the alliance. It has been invoked only once in NATO’s 65 years—right after the 9/11 attacks on the U.S.
Putin, by getting away with biting off Crimea, has set a powerful example for other countries that covet a chunk of their neighbor.
Implementing it requires unanimous consent of the 28 members. In all likelihood, it would be difficult to get that consensus in Europe, given the diversity of views among members, the fractious politics of many countries and the sobering possibility that it could portend war with Russia.
Pushing NATO to that brink would be an enormous risk for Putin, but he might be willing to gamble a NATO deadlock—an outcome that would make it seem feckless and irrelevant. (If NATO surprised him by getting its act together with some procedural workaround, Putin could always just back down.)
The Broken Taboo
And lastly, Putin has unleashed a dangerous precedent by breaking what was becoming a near-taboo against territorial acquisition by force—a trend the world has been working toward since the end of WWII, as Fareed Zakaria has written. (Only 12 have occurred since 1946—and all of those before 1976.)
So Putin, by getting away with biting off Crimea, has set a powerful example for other countries that covet a chunk of their neighbor, or that have a territorial dispute that resists diplomatic solution. The litany of examples includes China’s claim to the Senkaku Islands (currently Japanese); Armenia’s claim to Nagorno-Karabakh, now part of Azerbaijan; and the long-running dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir—along with countless other such contests in Africa, Southeast Asia and indeed in nearly every part of the world. And of course, there is Russia’s own claim to some of the Kuril Islands (also currently Japanese).
In all of these cases, the U.S. has urged diplomatic solutions. But that case just got a little harder to make, thanks to Vladimir Putin.
It’s certainly too soon to confidently predict how Putin’s land grab will affect things more broadly. But we know there will be aftershocks. We just haven’t yet begun to feel the tremors.
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).