Why the West should think twice before testing Russia on Crimea



There are different accounts of what happened when the British destroyer HMS Defender passed off the coast of Crimea on June 23. Conflicting reports and reactions following the event are revealing of how each side understands its strategic interest in the region. In Russia’s case, the event fueled Moscow’s internal narrative that Kiev is just a Western pawn in the service of bringing enemy forces closer to the Russian border. For the United States, this type of incident presents a high risk, low reward scenario in which Washington has little to gain and much to lose in image and influence.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said HMS Defender was simply on a scheduled voyage in Ukrainian territorial waters “in accordance with international law”. Johnson pointed out that Britain does not recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea. It is reasonable and even expected that a country in the international community should show solidarity with Kiev and reprimand Russia for its actions in eastern Ukraine; however, acting as if a NATO member could travel with impunity within what Russia considers (historically) to be its territorial waters fundamentally disregards how Moscow views its national interest.

Russian President Vladimir Putin expands on this when he says the deliberate British intrusion was coordinated with the active participation of the United States. According to him, an American reconnaissance plane took off from a NATO airfield the very morning of the illegal incursion. As per the standard Moscow narrative, nothing of military significance happens without Washington’s guiding hand. Putin went on to say that the main purpose of the passage of the British ship was to collect military information from the Russian port of Crimea.

According to the Kremlin, incidents in recent weeks point to Western ambitions to ignore international law and move military bases closer to the Russian border. The passage of HMS Defender through Crimean waters is seen as a direct attempt to undermine the spirit of Geneva, alluding to Putin’s June 16 meeting with his US counterpart President Biden. The summit had been preceded several months earlier by Moscow, which had acquiesced in Western unease over exercises by Russian troops near the Ukrainian border by ordering the return of its forces.

For Putin, the most alarming aspect of the HMS Defender incident was not that Pentagon press secretary John Kirby denied reports that the Russians fired warning shots as ” misinformation ”- they expect the same from Washington, and the Russian media has even put up a comedy video ridiculing Kirby’s statement – but rather the perceived movement forward after Russia voluntarily stepped back. Putin, a black belt in judo, knows that an opponent occupying his vacant space often precedes an offensive movement. Moscow sees Ukraine’s accession to NATO as strategically unacceptable and is concerned that it becomes a Western outpost on the border with Russia. To demonstrate their resolve in the face of this perceived aggression, Russia conducted military exercises in the Black Sea on July 3 in which warplanes trained to bomb enemy ships. The escalation of rhetoric following the HMS Defender incident begs the question: What strategic advantage does the West gain from this type of provocative maneuver?

Some might argue that it is about strengthening our military relations with Ukraine and expressing our commitment to Kiev as an ally. However, we do not need to accept the annexation of Crimea to avoid unnecessarily upsetting Moscow and risking a military confrontation. Again, Washington may continue to support the path to democracy for a budding country, but reality dictates that the United States takes historical and geographic realities into consideration. Moscow will not agree to Ukraine joining NATO. Putin puts things in the right perspective when he declares that Russia would never back down from a military confrontation on its own border until the West does: “It was not we who came to them. [to perform military exercises] thousands of kilometers away.

A realistic approach to foreign policy concludes that Crimea is a fait accompli for Russia – at least as long as the country is under the Putin administration (and given his efforts to cement power, this will likely be the case in a foreseeable future). Britain’s movement within the disputed Crimean territorial waters is undoubtedly a provocation outside of its own national interest or that of any other NATO country. This type of behavior risks a deadlock that the US-led alliance is likely to lose face in the end. As each side pushes the boundaries, the withdrawal becomes more difficult as the resulting damage to each country’s reputation increases. At the most extreme end, even a small-scale military encounter would likely win only the initial sympathies of national populations in the West. The inevitable escalation by degrees of any military encounter on Russia’s border will wither Western support long before Russian resolve.

The foreign policy of the United States and its allies would be better served by continuing to support the democratization process in Ukraine, by supporting Kiev as it implements domestic reforms that tackle endemic corruption and its decline. current towards authoritarianism. Providing military support and training to Ukrainian forces as they fight separatists in the east of the country further demonstrates that the West actively supports budding democracies facing pressure from threatening neighbors; however, the illusion that the United States or any NATO member is prepared to engage in a protracted war on Russian territory de facto should be dispelled.

Russia must be caught in the act when it engages in illegal activities on the world stage. By all means, the United States should send clear signals to Moscow that it will respond to Russian extraterritorial aggression with an asymmetric response. However, Putin preemptively called the US bluff on Crimea, and pursuing a strategy of doggedness in this area will only tarnish the reputation of Washington and its NATO allies.

Dominick Sansone is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna, Italy.

Image: Reuters


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