Since Russian soldiers seized Ukraine's Crimea peninsula last week, governments in the United States, the European Union, and Canada have been clear about one thing: they won't use armed force to get Russian troops out of Ukrainian territory. This is, to say the least, a prudent response.
The Russian military's takeover of border posts and the Kerch ferry terminal, and their besieging and seizing of Ukrainian army, navy, and air force bases was swift, well-planned, and very competently executed. Equally (if not more) professional has been Ukraine's military, which has worked to stymie Russia's tactical moves by non-violently resisting when possible, by refusing Russian troops entry to bases when possible, and by defying Russian ultimatums to hand over their arms and equipment or face the consequences.
So far, cool heads among the Ukrainian and Russian armed forces have kept what could be a horrifying situation bloodless. Russia has achieved what is known as a fait accompli, and has changed the facts on the ground in Crimea, de facto prying it away from the government in Kyiv.
Russia is playing the short game. The self-declared, pro-Putin government in Crimea has announced that in a little over one week from now, it will hold a referendum on the status of Crimea's future in Ukraine. If this plebiscite happens, there are good reasons (such as the presence of an armed occupation force) to suspect that it will not be a completely fair and free vote.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's specific goals for Crimea are not quite clear yet, but fostering a situation akin to Abkhazia or South Ossetia — two former provinces of Georgia that have become pseudo-countries dependent on Russian economic aid — is a distinct possibility.
So far, Russia's tactical, short-run foreign policy is swift, sure-footed and successful. That does not mean that Kyiv, Washington, Berlin, London or Ottawa should throw in the towel. As Poland's Prime Minister Donald Tusk says, "Ukrainians have to find out today that they have real friends." Canada, the U.S., and the EU can help Ukrainians in the long run, if we are willing to put our money where our mouth is. Here are a few ways how:
— First, formally ask NATO to begin contingency planning for further provocations. Just because we don't want military conflict does not mean we should not prepare for it.
— Second, increase military co-operation with Ukraine. So far, Ukraine's armed forces have helped calm the situation. In the long run, if the Ukrainian military requests it, Western militaries can help Ukraine by offering training and personnel exchanges.
— Third, get a financial aid package ready. This crisis began last year because Ukraine's government claimed signing an association agreement with the EU would be too expensive (meanwhile Russia imposed restrictions on Ukrainian imports) and that Ukraine's fragile finances could not bear the adjustment costs. So Ukraine took a Russian bailout, and protests ensued. Today, Ukraine's finances are in even worse shape. The EU has begun talking about a $15-billion package. While better late than never (the West should have offered a package last year), it is now more important than ever that Ukraine gets the cash it needs to keep servicing its debt, paying for social programs, and paying for imports. Canada should contribute to any financial package; $200,000 for first aid simply doesn't cut it.
— Fourth, sanction the Russian economy. Putin is expecting sanctions. They did not send their army into a foreign country with the expectation that there would be zero consequences. So, when sanctions come, they need to hurt. This means getting the U.K. and Germany on side. So far, London and Berlin have vacillated on the issue, since sanctions cut both ways (they hurt the target and the sender). The U.S., Canada, and other like-minded governments need to convince our European friends that deterring the naked use of force in Europe is worth the price of sanctions.
— Fifth, help the new Ukrainian government find a way to run the country in a way that fosters unity, rather than division. Ukraine is beset by a linguistic divide and successive governments that the public regard as feckless and corrupt. If Ukrainian politicians, civil society, or non-governmental organizations ask for Canadian assistance to implement policy reforms that can help manage linguistic tensions or bring accountability to the Ukrainian public sector, then the Canadian government and private sector should be there.
— And sixth, don't cut all ties with Russia. Russia's ambassador to Canada, Georgiy Mamedov, is tough, smart, professional, and one of the most experienced diplomats in Ottawa. He is precisely the sort of person we need to be able to talk to when tensions and tempers flare.
Ultimately, we have to accept that Russia has legitimate interests along its borders (though Putin's justification for using force in Ukraine — that Russian-speaking Ukrainians face violence and persecution at the hands of Ukrainian speakers — has not been substantiated by any credible reporting). Russia wants to ensure its naval assets in Crimea are safe and that a new Ukrainian government will not try to force the Russian Black Sea Fleet out of Ukraine. Russia also has tremendously important economic interests in Ukraine (the majority of natural gas that Russia sells to Western and Central Europe gets to its final destination via Ukrainian pipelines).
Wanting to ensure the safety, security, and dignity of co-ethnics in foreign lands is also an understandable goal. However, just because Russia may have some legitimate interests, does not mean we have to tolerate its naked military aggression against a neighbour that suffered tremendously under foreign rule in the past.
Instead, we need to play the long game: show Ukrainians that we do care about their fate, that Western talk of democracy, government that rules on behalf of its people, and the right to self-determination is not just hollow rhetoric, but ideas that we are willing to pay a cost to secure.