Following former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s recent comments on how to approach the “Ukrainian Problem,” two writers of Prospect Journal debate the merits of hard and soft power in dealing with Russia’s actions in Crimea. This is the first article in a two-part series.
By Bijan Mehryar
Whether the United States should or should not be the world’s superpower does not change the facts on the ground. When protesters from around the world clamor for American support, it is because of what America represents to these people. When Russia invaded the Crimean peninsula in blatant violation of international law, America’s tepid response indicated that we were not going to put up a strong enough fight for the Ukrainian people who had risen to overthrow the Yanukovych government. The fact of the matter is that the Obama administration has pursued a soft power strategy where hard power is needed. Rice is right in advocating for a nuanced post-cold war mindset, because Putin is very much a leader who is attempting to reclaim the prestige and eminence lost by Russia since the early 1990s.
In the span of a couple weeks, Russian troops amassed on the Russian-Ukrainian border, entered Crimea, took control of the peninsula and annexed it within the context of a referendum and treaty that have been widely criticized by the international community. However, the international community has issued no ultimatum to Russia. By March 26 the Russian flag had been raised in all of the 193 military bases in Crimea following the withdrawal of Ukrainian troops. Despite a recent meeting in Paris between Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, the debate over what will become of the annexation is still unresolved with Russia demanding Ukrainian constitutional reform and greater autonomy from Kiev for ethnic Russian regions.
While Obama has excelled in other areas of his foreign policy, such as the use of the drone strike program to eliminate terrorists, he has far too often painted a picture of himself as having to catch up with international events, not leading the change the world needs in affairs such as this. The Iranian protests of 2009, the Egyptian Revolution in 2011, the Syrian civil war and now the annexation of Crimea, all exemplify how America has been unable to effectively promote and protect its interests. Obama, if he wishes to solve this process, cannot go about in a tit-for-tat sanctions game against Russia. Rather he needs a combination of demonstrative military force in the name of protecting Ukrainian sovereignty, and stalwart international condemnation to make Putin scale down the conflict. This is not to say that a rigorous sanctions regime should not be used at all, but rather that these sanctions should not be the only tool for solving these situations. Time and time again we have learned that sanctions, unless pursued for decades, like in the case of Iran, do not lead to immediate turnarounds in policy.
Putin has a long history of aggressive action. This is a man who lived through the defeat of his nation at the hands of the West, and piece-by-piece he is attempting to rebuild and strengthen the Russian sphere of influence. On principle, a strong Russia is not necessarily a bad thing, but when that strength becomes the means by which other nations are threatened and conquered then we must, in the strongest ways possible, move against such unchecked expansionism. Putin did this once with Georgia, then with Crimea and now he is using the situation in Crimea to negotiate for the support of a breakaway Russian state in Moldova. Men like Putin only understand one thing – power. He is a strongman who needs to be strong-armed back into place and be taught that in the 21st century, you cannot use pieces of other countries as means to rebuild a collection that you lost 24 years ago.
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