That might sound like a strange article title from a libertarian. After all, aren’t we supposed to be ultra-isolationist types? Aren’t libertarians not supposed to care what happens anywhere else in the world? While that is ordinarily true, the situation in the Ukraine differs from, say, that of North Korea on a whole bunch of levels. First and foremost, the odds of the US entering a shooting war with the Koreans (or Iran, a host of other nations) is infinitesimally small. Should the Koreans actually be dumb enough to lob a nuke at Anchorage (or Seoul, or Tokyo), they fully understand their half of the Korean Peninsula won’t be suitable for human habitation for another 10,000 years. Let them rattle their sabres and keep Dennis Rodman busy. If they want to become a glass parking lot, I could care less.
What separates the situation in Ukraine from others around the globe is the agent provocateur, Russia. I know what you’re about to say – I can see the eyes rolling over from here. “What does the Russian interest in Ukraine have to do with the US?”; “If it’s Europe’s problem, let Europe handle it”; “The Ukranians can fight their own fights” and my favorite, “Haven’t the Russians been part of the Ukraine for centuries?”
Well, yes – the Russians have used Sevastopol as the home port for the Black Sea fleet since Catherine the Great was “Tsar of all the Russias.” In fact, Sevastopol was the original “Potemkin Village.” It also marked arguably the bloodiest loss for the Russian Empire during the Crimean Way, when after 11 months of siege the city fell to British, French and Turkish troops – but only after the classic Russian “scorched earth” stratagem of burning the city to the ground and scuttling the Black Sea fleet. But the entire argument that the Russians are simply securing a port and region with historic ties to Moscow is as fallow as the Sahara in July. When Ukraine gained independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991, one of the provisions was recognition of the “special status” of both Crimea and Sevastopol. The city is (or was, until Saturday) jointly ruled by both Russia and Ukraine; the region was given semi-autonomous status and under the Ukrainian constitution, allowed to pursue it’s own relations with Moscow. The Russian naval base was leased to Moscow until 2042. In short, Russia had no pressing reason to invade Crimea. Indeed, if anything, the situation after the Orange Revolution in 2004 would have dictated military action more so than the current one.
The middle two arguments and part of the first are debunked by more recent history than the Crimean War. When Ukraine gained independence, there was an immediate problem faced by the entire world: Ukraine inherited an entire Soviet ICBM fleet – and those missiles were armed. Overnight, the world was faced with a new nuclear power – in fact, Ukraine commanded the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world. It was larger than the combined nuclear forces of Great Britain, France, China, South Africa and Israel. The answer to resolving the potential nightmare was the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. Under the terms of that treaty, Ukraine agreed to relinquish her nukes in exchange for guarantees of her sovereignty and protection from the other signatories: the United States, Great Britain and Russia. There can be no doubt the Russians have violated the terms of that treaty (as of this writing, 2 regiments have taken up strategic positions with Ukraine and another 3 full divisions are poised to complete the invasion). The question before us is, do we agree to abide by our treaty commitments? Failure to do so demonstrates to every other ally of the United States that we are a feckless, irresponsible partner in world affairs. Already, the fealty of the US is being questioned after our actions (or inactions) during the Obama presidency. Failure to act now will destroy what remains of 75 years worth of credibility built by successive administrations, both Democrat and Republican.
But ultimately, the decision of what our country should do regarding the current situation in Ukraine belongs to We, the People. Just as an outcry against the planned bombing of Syria nearly a year ago persuaded the government to abandon those plans, a similar outcry of support for Ukraine could lead to action. But why should we, as citizens of the United States, care about what Russia does to her neighbors?
To understand that, you need to know a bit about the history of the principle actors on the stage. First and foremost is Vladimir Putin. I think most of my readers are aware of Putin’s ties to the former KGB. But I doubt few understand the type of command Putin has over the Russian government and the thrall he has over Russia’s people. As a politician, Putin is an ultranationalist, appealing to the Russian desire for a return to the type of world dominance once enjoyed by the Soviet Union. As a leader, he has been every bit as ruthless in the political arena as he was during his 16 year stint as a KGB colonel. Indeed, he rose within the infant Russian democracy to take the reins of the FSB, the successor to the KGB – and used the power of that office to “convince” Boris Yeltsin to appoint him Prime Minster in 1999. Only 3 months later, Yeltsin agreed to resign and appoint Putin as acting President. In the 14 years since, Putin has assumed autocratic command of every aspect of Russian political, economic and military life. As to Putin’s intentions on the world stage, he has made it clear his overarching goal is to first expand Russia’s border to encompass the territory of the old Soviet Union. Additionally, he regards any countries that were formerly in the Warsaw Pact as Russian “protectorates,” even should those nations decide to join the EU or NATO.
Part of Putin’s strategy has been to install puppet leaders in several of former Soviet republics. As a strategy, it has proven quite effective – for minimal expense, Russia effectively brought all of the former Soviet Republics back into herself. One place it didn’t happen was Georgia, which led Russia to invade South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008, and occupy those territories ever since. It was the ouster of one puppet, Viktor Yanukovych (who has since turned up in a dacha outside Moscow), in the latest Ukranian uprising that led to the Russian incursion in Crimea. Yanukovych’s career is a strange one. This marks the second time Ukrainians have deposed him, the first being the Orange Revolution in 2004. It was the chaos among competing democratic factions that allowed Yanukovych to return to power, but it was his insistence on doing the Kremlin’s bidding that ultimately led to his downfall.
Perhaps it’s paranoia speaking, but if so my family’s history justifies a little paranoia. The Russian crackdowns on dissidents and “undesirables” are very reminiscent of two of the most horrible regimes in world history, that of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Putin has, like Stalin, Lenin and Hitler before him, made no secret of his desire to control the world. My family suffered at Dachau and Auschwitz; those that survived suffered near equal indignities at the hands of their Russian “liberators” in Austria. So, yes, I grew up with those horror stories, with the tattoo on my grandmother’s arm and with an innate understanding of the types of atrocities autocratic regimes impose upon the populace. As an American, one of the things I’m proudest of is our commitment to the principle of “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” It is a principle we abandoned in the 1930′s as Adolph Hitler absorbed country after country in central Europe.
But even if we allow our founding principles to stand aside, there is another compelling reason to actively engage Putin’s Russia now. Our failure to take decisive action from 1933 – 1939 led to the invasion of Poland and World War II. Indeed, although FDR is not one of my favorite Presidents, I do commend him for pushing through the Lend-Lease Act, which allowed Britain to continue the fight once hostilities began – despite strong objections from the “America Firsters” in both parties. We have see any number of tin-pot dictators come and go in the 70 years since that war ended, but this marks the first time that one has seized control of a nation that is actually capable of plunging the world into general war. If Hitler had been confronted in the Ruhr, the Sudetenland or Austria before Poland, that great conflagration would have been avoided (in the case of the Ruhr and Sudetenland) or played out dramatically differently. Instead, we (along with Britain and France) played a geopolitical game of appeasement, believing that “giving” Germany predominately German-speaking territories would sate Hitler’s appetite.
My fear now is we will have forgotten the lessons learned at the expense of over 100 million lives and try to appease Putin. Tin pot dictators always mean what they say – the only question is if they have the ability to make those threats reality. Vladimir Putin has that ability, and this failing to stop him will cost the world far more than 100 million people.