The Magazine

Crimea and Punishment

Time for another Russia reset.

Mar 31, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 28 • By TOD LINDBERG
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If Russia had legitimate concerns about ethnic Russians in Ukraine, it could have taken them to the Security Council to see if they could be addressed there. Under the U.N. Charter, the Security Council has “primary responsibility” for maintaining international peace and security, and Russia is a permanent member with a veto. Russia chose instead to bypass the Security Council and act unilaterally.

Nor was this the first time. In 2008, Russia moved militarily against Georgia, citing as a pretext a need to protect ethnic Russians in two Georgian provinces. If Russia harbored serious concerns, as opposed to naked territorial ambitions as well as Putin’s personal loathing of then-Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, the Security Council would have been the proper venue for raising them. (It’s now also necessary to see Georgia 2008 as a prologue to Ukraine 2014, not the aberration the Obama reset effectively treated it as.)

Everything Russia says about Ukraine has to be evaluated in the context of its unwillingness to present and discuss the matter even in a forum where it is a privileged member. And of course the Security Council voted 13-1, with China abstaining and Russia exercising its veto, on a resolution condemning the bogus referendum Russia staged as a pretext to annex Crimea.

Similarly, Russia deserves no quarter from the United States or its allies on Russian claims of hypocrisy. It’s true that the United States has taken military action without the explicit authorization of the Security Council. But the United States has always gone to the Security Council first, before taking action. The United States tried to get the ethnic cleansing and imminent slaughter in Kosovo addressed at the Security Council in 1998-99, but Russia balked. Only then did the United States and its allies take military action. There were numerous Security Council resolutions demanding Saddam Hussein’s compliance and threatening consequences in the runup to the 2003 war. But Russia did nothing to engage the Security Council on Ukraine before taking military action.

What is more, Russia now stands condemned over Crimea by numerous governments, such as in Germany and France, that opposed the U.S.-led military action against Iraq in 2003. Russia has acted on its own and has garnered no international support for its actions beyond a tiny number of autocratic governments beholden to it, whereas the condemnation of its actions has been widespread and consistent with international law.

The United States also needs to reassess the failure of the Security Council to address the civil war in Syria in light of Russia’s move into Crimea. It’s unclear whether the United States was ever serious about doing anything to protect Syrian civilians from Bashar al-Assad. But in blocking action at the Security Council, Russia was not acting out of the offense it took over the toppling of Muammar Qaddafi under cover of a Security Council resolution to protect Libyan civilians. Rather, Russia was using all means at its disposal to prop up its Syrian ally. The United States must not straitjacket itself in a forum Russia is using solely to advance a power-politics agenda.

We have no Russian partner in Syria. Putin’s intervention at the 11th hour with a proposal for Assad to give up his chemical weapons rather than suffer a U.S. military strike for using them on his people served to relieve the Obama administration of a burden it did not want to bear. But it also bound the United States, Russia, and Syria together as partners in a disarmament process. Russia understood the implications of this—freezing U.S. options in Syria while the disarmament process was under way—even if the United States did not. Under the circumstances, the United States must punish Assad militarily for any noncompliance with his chemical disarmament obligations, including noncompliance related to timetables.

We should also recognize that we have no Russian partner in Iran. In fact, the administration’s Iran policy is in serious trouble, not because Russia was ever going to be helpful enough to get Iran to halt its nuclear weapons program, but because Iran has seen what is happening in Ukraine, which returned its Soviet-era nuclear weapons to Russia in exchange for paper guarantees of security. Iran’s determined pursuit of a nuclear weapon is a position Putin likely respects.

Meanwhile, we have NATO allies to reassure about the seriousness of our commitment to their defense and two decades’ worth of rhetoric and policy in pursuit of “Europe whole, free and at peace” to uphold against what has become a serious Russian challenge. Sen. Richard Lugar once said that in the post-Cold War era, NATO would either go “out of area or out of business.” Now it’s time for NATO to get back to basics and back in business.

Tod Lindberg is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford, and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.

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