Thanks to some strange alignment of the planets, there were two competing, yet remarkably similar, news stories this week. Both involved the disappearance of things that should never get lost: an entire passenger plane and an entire country. But, at this point, both Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and Crimea are still missing – and may never be found again.
The anguish of family members whose loved ones were passengers on Flight 370 is understandable. Commercial airliners may crash, albeit rarely, but they never just disappear. Less understandable is the anguish of many observers over Russia’s defiant annexation of Crimea. Anybody who knows the history of the region should not have been shocked or surprised.
Of course, as Americans who believe in international law and respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all nations, we’re supposed to be so outraged we’re willing to suit up and go to war over Putin’s illegal land grab. But I’m not, and here’s why.
First, this is hardly the first time Crimea has changed hands. It’s like a doormat. According to Wikipedia, since 700 BC, the peninsula has been successively controlled by Cimmerians, Bulgars, Greeks, Scythians, Romans, Goths, Huns, Khazars, Kievan Rus, the Byzantine Empire, Venice, Genoa, Kipchaks, the Golden Horde, the Ottoman Empire, the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Ukraine – and now Russia.
Indeed, for more than a century, Crimea’s been considered part of Russia. It was only symbolically transferred to Ukraine from the Soviet Union in 1954 – by Ukrainian native Nikita Khrushchev. But even within Ukraine, Crimea was still recognized as an “autonomous parliamentary republic,” with its own constitution and its own president. Today, 58 percent of Crimea’s 2 million population is ethnic-Russian. Only 24 percent are ethnic Ukrainians. Russian is their official language.
Second, as far as the United States is concerned, it doesn’t really matter whether Crimea is part of Ukraine, Russia, Kosovo, Belarus, Poland or Japan. Seriously, it doesn’t make any difference in our lives. Before this crisis, most Americans couldn’t find Crimea on a map. Now they won’t have to, because it no longer exists.
Third, and most important, reason: Russia’s too big, too powerful and too energy-independent for U.S. sanctions against it to work – especially when our Western European allies refuse to go along. The only other way to wrest Crimea from Russia’s claws would be an all-out war against the Russian army. But, after just ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a land war in Eastern Europe is the last thing the American people want. Again, especially given the fact that, for us, the status of Crimea has no direct national security implications.
Any doubts about the future of Crimea should have vanished on March 19, when Ukraine voluntarily withdrew soldiers from Crimean territory and turned its bases over to the Russian military. But that didn’t stop critics from blaming President Obama for losing Crimea, or the Obama administration from insisting it could still change Putin’s mind. They’re both wrong.
Starting with Sen. John McCain, who called Putin’s seizure of Crimea “the ultimate result of a feckless foreign policy where no one believes in America’s strength anymore,” several Republicans argued that if only President Obama had bombed Syria, Putin would never have dared invade Crimea. This is nonsense. Even though President George W. Bush invaded Iraq, that didn’t stop Putin from sending troops into Georgia in 2008 and seizing the provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Other critics assert that, by failing to stop Putin in Crimea, the United States has already lost the “Second Cold War.” This is equally nonsensical. Whatever the situation in Crimea, it is not another Cold War. There’s a big difference between the 1950s, when we were protecting our allies from a hostile takeover by a massive world power, and today, when we’re trying to keep Crimea from rejoining ties with Russia, even though 97 percent of its voting public chose to do so. Plus, we can’t afford to sever all ties with Russia, as long as we have more important issues, like Iran and Syria, where we need their help.
But if critics are wrong to blame it all on President Obama, the administration’s wrong to continue pretending it can restore Crimea to Ukraine. Ain’t gonna happen. This train has left the station. Yes, Vladimir Putin did wrong. But this is one wrong we’re going to have to learn to live with.