What does the crisis in Crimea mean for US-Russia relations?


US President Barack Obama (L) holds a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G8 summit at the Lough Erne resort near Enniskillen in Northern Ireland, on June 17, 2013.



Russia’s invasion of the Ukrainian peninsula Crimea has prompted a foreign-policy crisis with important national security and economic consequences.

Is it the beginning of another cold war between two nuclear-armed countries?

GlobalPost talked to Thomas Nichols, professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College, about the implications.

GlobalPost: How powerful a threat does Russia pose to Ukraine?

Thomas Nichols: Well, Russia controls the Crimean peninsula — that’s over in terms of Russian ability to engage military action. Whether Russia really intends to threaten the entire Ukraine is a totally different question.

Russia is powerful enough to be able to threaten Ukraine, but I think that would be an insane risk on the part of the Russians. Ukraine is a large country — it’s 50 million people with a sizeable army of its own. We’ll be talking about a major European war. I don’t think that’s what the Russians want.

I think Vladimir Putin wanted to make a point, and I think he’s made it. Whether he’ll be satisfied with making that point, I don’t know. [The point Putin’s trying to make is] that Russia is deciding what post-Cold War sovereignty looks like in that region and not anybody else — that Russia’s the arbiter of borders and independence in the former Soviet state. And also to recover some of his wounded pride after the unceremonious way that [ousted Ukrainian President] Yanukovych was run out of town.

Would you say this is President Obama’s biggest foreign policy challenge?

I think it’s his most severe foreign policy challenge of his presidency because this really is about whether the peaceful outcome of the Cold War is sustainable.

So do you think this crisis shifts the focus away from other foreign policy issues in Asia and the Middle East?

I think that the final collapse of what’s left of our Russian policy is going to bring down our policies in Syria and Iran since our policies in Syria and Iran were overly dependent on cooperation with the Russians in the first place. Russia was a key to those two policies — so all three of them are coming down like a house of cards.

The Russians were the key to getting the Syria to cooperate with the international community, and they were the only hope we had of any pressure on the Assad regime... And the Iranian deal was again predicated on the cooperation of Russia as P5+1. With United States and Russia barely on speaking terms and things getting worse, we’re certainly not going to coordinate any policy on Iran and the Iranians know it.

These policies are all linked to each other and the Russians know that well. This is a complete train wreck of three different issues — Russia, Syria and Iran at this point.

What long-term issues does the crisis represent for US-Russia relations?

Sadly, it’s going to make further cuts in our nuclear arsenal almost impossible to sell to the American people. It will probably hamper our cooperation on a lot of other important issues, which is very unfortunate. For example, I think as long as Crimea is under Russian occupation, which it might be for some time now, there’s always going to be that thorn in our side when we’re talking about things like Russia-NATO cooperation.

How should the US respond from a national security perspective?

There isn’t much more we can do than we’re doing. I think we need to leave the Russians away to climb back down from this tree they’ve gotten themselves into, but it has to happen soon. And it all has to begin with Russian forces returning to their bases. I don’t think sanctions in the long-term really work very well… If this goes on even for three or four more months, we’re going to have a de facto change in the status quo in Europe where Crimea is basically an autonomous Russian republic. I do think this should end Russia’s G8 membership. The G8 is supposed to be a group of democracies and Russia’s failing that test by invading a neighbor.

What more could the US do to de-escalate the situation?

I think the ball is in the Russians’ court now. I don’t think there’s much more we can do. We laid out a good case at the UN Security Council yesterday, but now it’s just a matter of whether the Russians want to keep burying the diplomatic and economic costs. I think the market is punishing the Russians more quickly than any sanctions can. We certainly can’t do anything militarily.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.