Perhaps the passing of Valery Kubasov, a Russian astronaut “who pioneered international cooperation in space when he joined with a fellow cosmonaut in the linkup of Soviet and American spaceships,” on February 19, 2014 was an indication to the end of cooperation between the two countries, which now has become a major geopolitical preponderance between the United States/Europe and Russia over Ukraine’s sociopolitical turmoil. In the last 48-hours Vladimir Putin has openly accepted Crimea’s regional prime minister, Sergei Aksyonov’s, call for the Kremlin’s protection and support of the region. Russia’s military invasion is quickly tarnishing the positive image Russia acquired at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.
The million-dollar question is: what is Russia’s motivation? A first motivation is reluctance to give up on the Cold War mentality; secondly, the opportunity to show muscle. On March 1, 2014 the Russian parliament approved the use of the military in Ukraine and requested that Putin withdraw Russia’s ambassador to the United States. This request, to me, suggests Russia’s foreign policy decision-making process continues to be largely influenced by the Cold War mentality. Russia’s politicians have demonstrated that they are keen on unilaterally taking action to shape Ukraine’s future domestic sociopolitical outcomes, and Ukraine’s geopolitical allegiance towards the East, rather than towards the West. It also seems that in order for Russia to successfully mold Ukraine’s future, Russian politicians see isolation and disruption of diplomatic relations with its main “adversary,” the United States, as a necessary part of its grand strategy.
The Ukrainian crisis is an opportunity for Putin to flex Russia’s military and political muscles to demonstrate its power and influence in the region. It seems as though Putin has had enough posturing from Western nations and is unwilling to lose more regional influence without a fight in order to secure his reputation among his ethnically Russian populace. If Putin had made the sensible decision of keeping Russian soldiers out of Ukrainian territory, Russians may have seen it as a sign of Putin’s weakness, and Russia’s overall loss of regional influence.
In a public statement on March 1, 2014, President Obama warned Russia of “greater political and economic sanctions,” if Russia continued violating Ukraine’s sovereignty. As of now, it seems like economic sanctions against Russia would have the greatest affect to make Russia back down. If Russian oligarchs begin to worry about a long-term economic whirlwind, the Russian government would soon feel the pressure to retract from their own elites. According to ABC News, Russia’s stock market dropped 10 percent on Monday March 3, 2014, and the Russian Ruble fell to its lowest point ever against the dollar. Russia’s economy is already feeling the economic consequences stemming from the crisis’s uncertainty. Russia and the United States have maintained a stable and relatively reliable diplomatic relationship since the Russian Federation emerged as an independent state in 1991. Consistent diplomatic engagement is crucial in order to prevent rapid, miscalculated escalations, particularly during moments of ongoing sociopolitical upheaval like that in Ukraine and Syria.
Although the United States has not clarified the type of costs, Obama needs to carefully pressure Vladimir Putin to withdraw Russian troops from Crimea in a way that will ensure diplomatic relations with Russia continue. An ongoing American-Russian diplomatic relationship is important not only to prevent miscalculations, but equally important, to ensure that efforts and negotiations of the Geneva peace talks regarding Syria remain a top priority for Russia and the international community. Putin clearly understands that Europe and the United States are not willing to sacrifice the progress (although minimal) made on Syria. This gives Putin greater leverage against the West to successfully achieve his goals in Ukraine, which as of now it seems to be to “protect Russian interests and citizens.” Economic sanctions will hopefully provide the pressure needed to prevent further Russian occupation in Ukraine while not disrupting diplomatic ties with Russia.
In terms of securing Ukraine’s long-term stability, the United States, with the support of the international community, should deliver a financial package to the new Ukrainian government to ensure the country’s stability. The Ukrainian people have demonstrated that they desire to be part of the European Union, which must now be supported by Europe and the United States. In addition, to ensure Ukraine’s long-term security North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) membership should be seriously considered once the Ukrainian government regains control of the country.