The Real “Red Line”*

By Sol W. Sanders
Monday, March 10th, 2014 @ 2:24AM

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Recorded history is generally a straight-line narrative, often written with prejudice, and as the cliché has it, by the victors.

Only those involved in writing it, or more importantly, living through it, know the many cross-currents that, because they do not present a clear picture of events, defy immediate balanced analysis. These truths apply to any moment in history but particularly to those when violent events or revolutionary technology changes the pattern of life for everyone.

We are obviously in one of those periods on several scores by any calculation.

But while history may or may not repeat itself, there are permanent aspects of the relationships among nations. And we live with contemporary manifestations of the intricate nature of those liaisons.

Among those which are of ultimate importance is the integrity of the national state as a cornerstone of international law.

With the expansion of the concept of the European nation-state after the Napoleonic Wars, its further consolidation in the 19th century, and Woodrow Wilson’s blessing (which didn’t exactly succeed in implementation) after World War I, conquest, international acceptance, and treaty obligations have made national boundaries sacrosanct.

When they have been violated deliberately by a rogue power, it has led to even more bloodletting on the Old Continent (where national boundaries had been enshrined to prevent just that very catastrophe), and has now been expanded (however unfittingly) to a vast new world in Latin America, Asia and Africa.

It matters little in principle whether those borders are in some way arbitrary, that they cross ethnic, racial or linguistic lines, or even that they contradict traditional avenues of commerce. What does matter more is that respect for them is violated at great jeopardy and usually at great cost to peace and stability of the world.

Russian demagogue Vladimir Putin has done just that in Crimea. The Russian leader has perpetrated all the familiar moves of his own military acting as “volunteers,” the recruitment of local thugs to intimidate the populace, and bald-faced lies about his activities. Alas! As so often happens in the early years of a successful demagoguery, he has enlisted the nationalist sympathies of much of the Russian people, on a poor diet of other accomplishments by his regime.

Crimea, on all counts, qualifies as an integral part of the Ukrainian state. By original Russian imperial conquest, by general acceptance of the new Eurasian states after the 1990 implosion of the Soviet Union, by the 1994 U.S.-U.K.-Russian Budapest Treaty guaranteeing Ukraine’s integrity in exchange for its abandoning nuclear weapons, by the very fact Russia’s military bases in Crimea were extended through negotiations with a Kiev government by Moscow, the peninsula was part and parcel of the Ukrainian state.

If Putin’s unilateral transgression of that integrity is permitted to endure, or in fact, if he expands it further to undermine the status of the Kiev regime, the world would be likely to again pay a very high price.

Sophisticated rationalizations by the talking heads notwithstanding, none of the arguments are conclusive about the ambiguous history of Crimean sovereignty. (Little mention is made of how Russian imperial and Communist rule wiped out the greater part of its “original” Tatar population to be supplanted with Russian emigrants, often the families of the military bases there.) Nor does it matter that during Josef Stalin’s times–and later by his Ukrainian ethnic successor, Nikita Khrushchev–Moscow played at mapmaker for the region by assigning it to the former Soviet regional Ukrainian “republic”.

Nor, again, does the fact that the implosion of the Soviet Union left behind in a dozen of Stalin’s largely artificially drawn states smaller or larger Russian minority populations negate Ukrainian sovereignty. Hillary Clinton, who has never shown much aptitude for historical scholarship, is perfectly correct when her speechwriter makes the point that Putin’s claim to protecting the rights of Crimean Russian ethnics as an excuse for intervention is too reminiscent of Adolf Hitler’s provocations leading to World War II.

Clinton’s indirect references to attempted appeasement of the Nazi dictator is perhaps too pat. So are the problems of recruiting an effective counter by the peace-loving coalition regarding Ukraine any less difficult than they were when Emperor Haile Selassie stood inconsolably before the League of Nations at Geneva in 1936 calling for action to halt the Italian Fascist Dictator Benito Mussolini’s destruction of his ancient Abyssinia (Ethiopia).

Yet, the fundamental problem remains the same for the Western alliance: How to rally an alliance which faces short-term disadvantages in a unified effort to halt Russian aggression through measures short of war?

To a considerable extent, Putin’s actions against Ukraine have been bluff. But at each turning, the Obama Administration has sought to use only the persuasion of rhetoric rather than moving its own pieces on the chessboard. To announce sanctions against the enormous deposits of Russian flight capital in the West–most of it thefts by Putin’s most intimate collaborators–before actually implementing them was typical. Secretary of State John Kerry’s invoking of the theme of how the West was playing by new and more sophisticated rules of the contemporary world while Putin was somewhere stuck in the 19th and 20th century was pitiful.

We apparently are now at the mercy of Putin’s own clumsy strategies and their possible self-destruction through the impact on the Russian economy.


* A version of this column will be published at on Monday, March 10, 2014.

Categories: ACD/EWI Blog, Latest News, Russia and East Europe, U.S. Foreign Policy, Ukraine

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