The Power of Restraint in Ukraine

“Showing strength” is very much in vogue in the Crimean crisis. Does it make Putin look strong? Does the United States look weak? Is the European Union handcuffed by Russian gas? Eastern Europe, ironically, has a long history of inverting what we call strength, of pulling down empires and tyrants that guns and bombs could never crush, with courage, resolve, and patience. The world owes Ukraine a debt for showing that strength of late.

Putin said Russia has no desire to intervene in Ukraine beyond Crimea, the justification for which he claimed was protecting Russian-speaking people in other parts of the country. But it’s far from clear that Russian speakers are in any kind of peril. The power move of the Ukrainians has been to totally unmask Putin’s gambit; he threw up a smoke screen, and the world quietly watched as the wind carried it away and showed it for what it was-- a naked attempt to rebuild a broken Russian-Eurasian empire.

Compare this to Russian intervention in Georgia in 2008. That was a chess match too, and the Georgians played their part perfectly. Violent reaction escalated the crisis, creating the conditions Putin claimed were already there, and backstopped the whole operation. Putin’s strategy played out flawlessly. Here we have an almost identical pretext, as though the Russian Foreign Ministry did a Google search for “justifying Georgia” and copy-and-pasted it onto the day’s agenda for Ukraine.

Now picture this: Ukrainian soldiers, not carrying weapons, march to retake their air force base from Russian forces. Russian troops fire shots above their heads. Ukrainian troops start kicking around a ragged yellow ball on a patch of grass. Soccer happens. A Russian guard yells to “step back” as the Ukrainians goad the occupiers into a lighthearted game of footie.

And there stands Putin upon the precipice, ears craned toward the crisis, anxiously craving their cries of distress and violence, finger poised on the invasion button. Silence. Footie.

Putin was uncharacteristically quiet in the days following the Crimean seizure, partly, I think, because of his incredulity that Ukrainians were not shooting at Russians. That part was very important, because violence by Ukrainian nationals, from the formal military or militias, was necessary to move any broader strategy for Crimean seizure, Ukrainian partition, or subsequent invasion. Putin stepped up his posturing, his troops surrounded and taunted Ukrainian armed forces, but nobody fired a shot. The Ukrainians had to shoot first, and they didn’t.

Very quickly, then, a new pretext was needed, one variously summarized as irredentism or ethnic nationalism, with a long precedent stretching back into colonial logic: a sham referendum annexing Crimea by virtue of ethnicity, history, and popular support.                                 

 All the while, even prior to the implementation of real sanctions, the Russian economy has been bleeding out. Almost $65 billion had already left Russia in 2013, and the ruble is fast becoming a textbook case in the political economy of a currency rout. Much of this would have been gamed out and predicted, but Ukrainian intransigence, in its unwillingness to start a shooting match, is seriously stretching out the timeline of consequences. If Russia were America, pundits would be scrambling over each other to invoke the phrase “imperial overstretch.”

So now we’re left with this sham of a referendum, which dangerously drags out a Eurasian master plan. The world wrings its hands in response, but the power move may have been Ukrainian resolve and restraint. Nothing would have been more cathartic, more understandable, more predictable, than violent opposition. Nothing would have more surely demanded a full-scale Russian response. Instead, a master strategy is unravelling, not on the back of NATO threats, EU financial diplomacy, or American finger wagging, but on the back of Ukrainian resolve. Soccer on the grassy knoll is the new shock and awe: checkmate.

-Robert Joustra is a Fellow with the Center for Public Justice. He is assistant professor of international studies at Redeemer University College and editorial fellow at The Review of Faith & International Affairs.