Even the most perfect system breaks down. Tomáš Sedláček

Why are we Isolating Russia Again?

Perhaps a more distant Russia is not a good thing.

“Our partners will have absolutely no choice but to join us to continue to expand upon steps we have taken in recent days in order to isolate Russia politically, diplomatically and economically.” -US Secretary of State John Kerry

It’s easy to think that crushing sanctions, a stumbling Russian economy and something of a stalemate in Eastern Ukraine are signs that the Western leaders have taken the right measures in addressing what had the potential to (and still could) escalate into a much larger conflict. But a weak Russia is actually a benefit to no one. Russia, an already declining power, shares a lot of Western interests from fighting terrorism to ensuring the stability of world markets. And although American media outlets proudly tout the noble and peaceful premise of diplomatically standing up to a stronger country forcing its will upon a weaker country, It ignores the fact that their own interests in Ukraine are fairly similar to Russia’s.

Sanctions on Russia will likely do little to help Ukrainians

American academic John J Mearsheimer recently wrote a brilliant piece called Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault, which highlights how the power-maximization goals of the United States incentivize rapid expansion of institutions like NATO and the EU. It’s through these institutions that Americans “westernize”, or gain market access to, former eastern bloc countries. Throw in plummeting oil prices, and many US energy companies are more than happy to back sanctions that keep Russian reserves out of Western markets.

A solid case can be made that Putin’s military involvement in Ukraine is a blatant disregard of national sovereignty and is in direct violation of international law. The Russian army’s movement of troops into Crimea, along with naval advances in the black sea set a very scary tone for what could happen in the region next. Although the choice of the United States and other Western nations to enact ever harsher economic and political isolation is perhaps the right move from some vague, moral perspective, it may not be the best move for the stability of Ukraine. If the real goal is to protect Ukraine and maintain its sovereignty, nations are going to have to work with Russia, even if they don’t want to.

Americans easily forget that one symptom of the collapse of the Soviet Union was that millions of Russians living in Eastern Europe became citizens of non-Russian countries overnight. Many of those Russians still live in countries like Ukraine, especially near the Russian border where the provinces Crimea, Luhansk, and Donetsk lie. Many Eastern Ukrainians, even beyond these provinces, typically speak Russian. A quick look at border changes in the 20th century, as well as immigration during the soviet years, and this fact becomes utterly unsurprising.

Sovereignty is a tricky thing

Sanctions will do much to boost the image of America taking the moral high road, but it will likely do little for Ukrainians, particularly those in the east. Americans must admit that their own country has also used military force that other countries believed violated international law. There was hardly a large American population in Iraq or Afghanistan when the US invaded those countries. Russia did not agree with those invasions, but Russia didn’t get in the way of them either. As a Chinese official once said about America’s relationship with Taiwan, “how would you feel if we pledged military support to Puerto Rico?”

Sovereignty is a tricky thing for the United States. Any quick look at the history of the Middle East, or 20th century Central and South America shows that the United States, just like Russia, has militarily and economically interfered with many countries on more than one occasion. Both countries have historically made the argument that these interferences were in the interest of maintaining regional stability, be it in the Eastern Bloc or the Middle East. That is how Putin, and much of Russia, views military action in Ukraine, or at least the backing of rebels in Ukraine. It doesn’t mean that these actions are justified, but it’s hard to argue objectively that all of America’s military choices have been much better. From a foreign policy perspective, it has simply not been the case, especially during the Cold War.

Perhaps most important of all, today’s crisis in Ukraine is far from the only issue where the United States needs Russian help. Russia has been a huge supporter of safely securing and shrinking nuclear stockpiles. Russia is one of America’s strongest secular allies in fighting terrorism. Despite not liking NATO, Russia has worked with NATO in war zones, Afghanistan included. They also work to keep North Korea in check. Talks with Russia were what persuaded Syria’s Assad to halt chemical warfare at a time when an American bombing campaign seemed imminent. The relationship between the United States and Russia ultimately is about saving lives and insuring stability.

As far as foreign policy is concerned, particularly concerning military activity, both the US and Russia have taken the bully route more than once, and they have often ignored UN concerns about national sovereignty and human rights while doing so. The White House should not be limiting its relationship with Russia right now, but taking steps to repair it. As history shows time and time again, the world is a much safer place when America and Russia focus on where their interests align rather than where they do not. Before Americans rush to admonish the Russians, it’s worth considering all the times when the Russians could’ve admonished them.

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