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Next Stop, Ukraine?

What McCain's interest in Crimea suggests about his worldview.

With Senator John McCain’s increasing propensity to drop new policy proposals into debates with little explanation, it is worth asking what he meant when he urged viewers to “watch Ukraine.” As it turns out, Ukraine is once again in the middle of a nasty domestic political crisis, this time pitting two former allies from the Orange Revolution--Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and President Viktor Yushchenko--against one another, with the most likely outcome being yet another early parliamentary election. But as much as I personally would applaud either of the U.S. presidential candidates for encouraging Americans to pay more attention to domestic politics in Ukraine (or any post-communist country for that matter), I don’t think this is exactly what Senator McCain had in mind.

Instead, Senator McCain was likely advancing a line of reasoning that has become popular in the press following this summer’s Russian-Georgian conflict. Simply put, there is a growing tendency to invoke the Munich analogy from World War II in reference to Russia’s invasion of Georgia. The argument here is that, like Germany in the 1930s, Russia is in the beginning stages of attempting to expand (or in this case reestablish) its empire by invading, dismembering, and eventually annexing territory from their neighbors. If the invasion of Georgia was a first step in this regard, then it is logical to ask what the next step will be.

This is where Ukraine, and in particular the Ukrainian province of Crimea (which McCain name-dropped during the debate), enters the picture. Crimea has three characteristics that make it a particularly attractive option as a next step for Russian aggression. First, the Russian Black Sea Fleet is still located in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, based on a lease that currently runs through 2017. Second, ethnic Russians make up a majority of the population of Crimea. Finally, and somewhat ominously, there are rumors that Russians have been increasing the rate at which they have been giving Russian passports to ethnic Russians in Crimea, a tactic that was employed previously in the Georgian case. Thus, one posited scenario is for an “atrocity” against ethnic Russians in Crimea to be manufactured, requiring Russian armed intervention in response.

These points notwithstanding, an invasion of Ukraine by Russia remains very unlikely in the near future for a whole host of reasons. First and foremost, an armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine would likely be a different affair from the one between Russia and Georgia by orders of magnitude; one expert on the Russian military responded to my query by estimating that if the Georgian military was a 1 and the Russian military a 10 on a 1-10 scale, the Ukrainian military would be about a 5 or a 6. Second, Russia has plenty of its own troubles to deal with at the moment in the wake of the global financial crisis. This particular factor will be greatly exacerbated if the price of oil--which has provided a great deal of the backbone to Russia’s newly aggressive foreign policy tactics--continues to fall. Third, Russia paid a heavy price for its invasion of Georgia, including international condemnation, the flight of foreign capital from Russian markets, and even encouragement of separatists within its own borders. Finally, Russia still hopes to extend the lease of the Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol beyond 2017, and any armed conflict with Ukraine that did not result in a complete annexation of Crimea would essentially end that possibility.

Moreover, the Munich analogy is not the only way to interpret the Russian-Georgian conflict. Another way to see the Russian incursion into Georgia was as an attempt to send a signal to both its neighbors and the West that there would be serious consequences for countries that Russia considered to be in its sphere of influence should they continue to pursue pro-Western policies and, probably most seriously, NATO membership. While this does not in any way make the invasion of Georgia more justifiable, it does suggest that the Georgian invasion may have accomplished a goal of Russian foreign policy in and of itself, and is not necessarily part of a broader policy of territorial expansion fueled by military conflict. The speed at which Russia rebuffed the suggestion by South Ossetian president Eduard Kokoity that South Ossetia (one of the two Georgian breakaway republics) ought to join Russia is certainly consistent with this vision of the invasion. Before anyone accuses me of being naïve, I want to be clear that it is of course much too early to know whether the Munich analogy is correct. It is, however, important to realize that there are alternative explanations for the invasion of Georgia that do not immediately give rise to a forthcoming invasion of Ukraine. (It is also worth noting that if one accepts this kind of a signaling perspective as a good explanation for the Russian-Georgian conflict, then extending NATO membership to Ukraine would probably have the effect of making a potential Russian-Ukrainian conflict more likely.)

The bottom line is that, while we certainly cannot rule out any future actions on the part of the Russian armed forces, by far the most likely outlet for this use of force was in Georgia--and this has already occurred. While our government should of course be preparing contingency plans in case any such conflict might break out, it remains highly unlikely in the near to medium future. This is not any way to suggest that Russia is not currently trying--and will not in the future try--to meddle in the domestic politics of Ukraine in an effort to influence developments there in its favor. But at a time when the United States has many pressing foreign policy concerns--including the global economic crisis, the war in Iraq, and the ongoing struggle with Al Qaeda--preparing for a Russian invasion of Ukraine is probably not one that most voters should feel compelled at the moment to “watch.”

Is there anything useful then to learn about Senator McCain from his decision to give Ukraine prime-time attention? While on the surface this is probably just a small part of an overall strategy to seem ready and willing to stand up to the bad guys out there in the world, it does suggest that he subscribes to the Munich analogy in terms of his understanding of the Russian-Georgian conflict, which may or may not be a desired characteristic in a presidential candidate. As a result, despite some of his claims to want to foster cooperation with Russia, he will most likely approach future interactions with Russia through a world-view that stresses the importance of standing up to Russia, which in many cases may mean conflict. Whether avoiding conflict with Russia in future years is possible (or even desirable) in any case remains an open question, but a McCain presidency would certainly seem to make it less likely.

Joshua A. Tucker is an associate professor of politics in the Wilf Family Department of Politics at New York University and a National Security Fellow at the Truman National Security Project.

By Joshua A. Tucker