Three key questions may address the competing, starkly different U.S.-Western narratives of the crisis:
1. Should Ukraine be the organizing principle of relations with Russia?
Does the West want to make the fate of Crimea and, by extension, Ukraine the central organizing principle of structuring relations with Russia? Sentiment might motivate the West to formulate a Ukraine policy and base relations with Russia accordingly. Realism dictates the West should first formulate a Russia policy, and then address the Ukraine crisis within that strategic framework.
There is a serious imbalance of interests for the two sides. For Russia, the loss of Crimea in particular could pose an existential threat, with its Black Sea Fleet headquartered there and access to the littoral states. For the West it is an optional add-on, with no core interests engaged whatsoever. In his Kremlin speech on March 18, President Vladimir Putin claimed the mantle of historical, religious, military (the thousands of Russian soldiers who shed their blood for it), ethnic and democratic (via a referendum) legitimacy for the return of Crimea to the motherland.
In “the well-known Kosovo precedent,” NATO used deadly force without U.N. authorization or treaty agreement with the host state and insisted permission of the central authorities was not required for secession. In Crimea, Russian actions did not involve any firefight or human casualties. Pointedly saying that “we remember 1999 very well,” Putin declared: “This is not even double standards; this is … blunt cynicism.”
2. If Ukraine had kept its nukes, would it still have Crimea?
Some say if only Kiev had kept the substantial stockpile of nuclear weapons (1,900 strategic, 2,500 tactical) inherited from the Soviet Union, instead of returning them to Russia in 1994, it would not have lost Crimea. The nuclear weapons would have deterred Russian invasion.
Wrong. All that Ukrainian nuclear bombs would have done is add yet another layer of extreme hazard to an already very volatile crisis. The bombs were not Ukrainian. Russia retained full command and control. Kiev never had access to the authorization codes necessary to launch them.
Let’s assume that, in time, Ukrainian scientists and engineers would have been able to overcome the technical difficulties and acquired operational control. They would still have faced substantial legal and political difficulties. The Non-Proliferation Treaty recognizes five nuclear weapon states (NWS): China, France, United Kingdom, United States and the Russian Federation. Legally, even as a successor state, it is hard to see how Ukraine could have been accepted as a NWS within the treaty. Russia, almost certainly backed by the West, would not willingly have surrendered its nuclear stockpile to an independent Ukraine that would have struggled to survive as an international pariah state. Its subsequent history would have been so different that the deterrent claim for the events of 2014 cannot be constructed as a credible counterfactual.
If Ukraine had emerged as a nuclear-armed state, Moscow likely would have kept a tighter reign to ensure it stayed pro-Russian. Trans-Atlantic allies would have been far more circumspect about interfering in its internal affairs to overthrow the elected pro-Russian president through street politics.
In any case, even if Ukraine had the bomb, Russia could still have annexed Crimea. Would Kiev have risked its very existence to escalate to a nuclear war? This does not make any strategic, political or common sense.
In 1999, nukes did not deter Pakistan from clandestinely capturing Kargil, nor India from launching a massive conventional assault to retake it. In 1982, nonnuclear Argentina was not deterred from invading the Falklands despite Britain having the bomb. Rumors of the death of the nuclear disarmament cause from “Ukrainitis” are much exaggerated.
3. Is Russia still a great power?
Is Putin proclaiming revanchist geopolitical ambitions of recreating historical Novorossiya, or protecting core geopolitical interests of today’s Russia? Great powers rise and fall on the tide of history. Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands are mere detritus of great colonial powers washed ashore and bleached into nothingness on the beaches of history. The onward march of history does not respect political correctness. On the contrary, history can be very harsh and unforgiving in inflicting severe punishment on those who get it wrong.
Historical power transitions are rarely peaceful. Russia was exceptional in the manner in which it acquiesced to the terms of its defeat in the Cold War. Mikhail Gorbachev had agreed to the peaceful unification of Germany in 1990-1991, and to united Germany being a NATO member, by withdrawing Soviet troops from East Germany on the clear understanding that NATO would not expand eastward.
As NATO’s relentless expansion crept ever-closer to Russia’s heartland, a pushback was inevitable. Ukraine in 2014 proved to be the place and the time. Putin noted, “If you compress the spring all the way to its limit, it will snap back hard.” He insisted that “Russia’s interests must be taken into account and respected.” The interests were translated into demands from Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that Ukraine must have a federal constitution with substantial administrative autonomy for the regions; protection for Russian as an official language; and a constitutional prohibition against Ukraine joining NATO.
Numerous objective metrics of power — population, area, GDP, military power (except for nuclear weapons) — show a steady decline in Russia’s major power credentials. Is it in temporary or terminal decline? If Russia is in irreversible decline as a great power, it will pay a terrible price for the annexation of Crimea and a newfound assertiveness in confronting the specter of NATO encirclement in Russia’s near-abroad.
But if Russia’s revival is sustainable and its post-1991 travails prove to have been a passing phase in history, NATO allies will pay history’s heavy price for having misread it so badly.
Meantime, Russia retains considerable capacity for mischief on a whole range of global issues, from veto power in the U.N. Security Council — which will deny Washington the much coveted cover of legality for use of coercion — to playing the spoiler in any number of trouble spots, from North Korea to Iran, Syria and the Arctic.
Ramesh Thakur is professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy at Australian National University.