Whatever stance America should take on the occupation of Crimea by Russia can be judged to be correct only to the extent our stance is in harmony with a sound policy towards Russia in general.
To we Hamiltonian realists, what qualifies as sound policy towards Russia is how well it answers the question we ask about all foreign relations – what strategic benefit would America gain from such policy?
Weighing the potential advantages of a cooperative (if not very friendly) partnership with Russia against those of a hostile posture, the strategic advantages of cooperation easily outweigh any from an adversarial one. The main advantages for America to working with Russia include –
- Securing the geopolitical and economic stability of Europe
- Acting as a hedge against China
- Stabilizing the Middle East
- Freeing up significant American resources to handle other potential threats; resources that, in case of hostile relations with Russia, would otherwise have to be invested in Europe
One consideration that is not a factor for Hamiltonians is the authoritarian nature of Putin’s government. Since the French Revolution, Alexander Hamilton and his successors have always been inclined to follow his example (marked by his deep skepticism that democracy could be easily exported to non-Anglo Saxon cultures) and back authoritarian regimes that provide stability over unproven revolutionary factions.
And, if I may say so, Hamilton in his era was a more rigorous defender of Absolutism than any French partisan of the Bourbon Restoration –
January 24, 1828. — Since the World began, never has a country shown such an utter want of men fit to conduct public affairs as France at this day. Bonaparte was right when he said — and he said it to me twenty times — ‘They talk of my generals and my ministers ; I have neither, I have only myself! — you have not me, but you have generals and ministers better than I have!’ Without boasting, I may say that we have better men than any that France has, or has had since the Restoration ; and France has not the Emperor of the French with his good sense.
Another wrong-headed consideration that Hamiltonians discard is the internet phenomena in America of Putin-groupiesm that would permit him to do whatever he pleases outside of Russia. The point of American negotiations with Russia is to benefit America, not Russia. Excessive acquiescence to Putin will only invite him to overreach, and, is otherwise of no help to the condition of Western politics.
The potential advantages to be gained through restored relations with Russia make a diplomatic effort worth pursuing; that pursuit can only be smoothed by the removal of the occupation of Crimea as its chief obstacle.
Because that occupation is less strategically significant to America compared to the already discussed considerations, America should simply put the matter aside and focus on areas where agreement can be reached.
I would go so far as to say that the ideal long-term resolution to Crimea is partition of the Peninsula to Russia because Crimea’s sentiments are so uniquely pro-Russian that they may try to willingly rejoin Russia in the future, even if control is restored to Ukraine over the short-term. The popularity of reunification there makes it an inherently more tempting object for Russia than other portions of Ukraine where Russia’s popularity is notably weaker.
But for now, a formal partition is infeasible because of the certainty of objections from Central and Eastern European nations that become all too understandably nervous whenever the West and Russia discuss a division of Eastern Europe. Not less important is the likelihood that any Ukrainian parliament would collapse if it tried to pass a bill recognizing Crimea as Russian territory.
The most plausible approach towards the occupation is, simply, a patient wait and see one.
Russia, too, stands to benefit economically, diplomatically and militarily through better relations with America.
Because a thawing is mutually beneficial, the first steps to restored relations should be made through exchanges of small, or packages of small, gestures by America with corresponding ones by Russia. As each step is made in the series, diplomatic relations will improve proportionally.
These exchanges might be roughly structured as follows –
- For Russian help on ISIS, stabilizing oil supplies to Europe, and less saber rattling, America agrees to lessen existing economic sanctions and remove missile defenses from Poland (defenses which can only intercept nuclear weapons from states with primitive arsenals, such as North Korea, and would be useless against hundreds of Russian missiles)
- For greater reduction in economic sanctions, America agrees to legally forbid Ukraine ever joining NATO without Russian approval
To make concessions there must also be deterrence and a clear delineation of what American red lines are. This means signals that the Baltics are off limits must be communicated.
Though it is not guaranteed that Russia will follow this script, the tradition in Russian history is they will not move Westward across Europe seizing territory unless there is a power vacuum (as was the case in the events leading up to the Crimean War where the decline of Ottoman power opened the Balkans to Imperial Russia), or when Russia is militarily allied with other Western European powers in a general European war.
It is highly unlikely that Western Europeans will enter an alliance with Russia (like the Coalitions against Napoleon, those in the Seven Years’ War, and numerous other instances since the Great Northern War introduced Russia to Europe as a major power) that could lead to the Russians crossing Eastern and Central Europe with Allied help.
The primary risk to a miscalculation on the part of Russia lies in their seeing a power vacuum in the Baltics, the most likely target for any Russian expansionism.
American policy must, therefore, be to prove there is no such power vacuum.
Before any concessions are made to Russia, American and NATO troops should be permanently deployed to the Baltics so as to close off any possibility of their returning to Russia without severe consequences.
Drawing the Baltic’s borders with troops is the surest way to make Russia respect those borders because that is how they would draw redlines within their own sphere of influence.