While Russian troops camp out on the Ukrainian border, pro-Russian insurgents inside the Eastern European nation are seizing town after town, this week claiming the eastern city of Luhansk. Obama and other Western leaders have responded with sanctions against Russia, but strongman Vladimir Putin has mocked their concerns.
American media outlets occasionally mention the Crimea and Ukraine crises, between in-depth coverage of missing Malaysian airplanes and racist basketball tycoons. Americans have a bad habit of ignoring major world events if they don't seem to directly impact us; were you even aware that the world's largest free democratic election is taking place right now in India?
If you're not terribly interested in what's going on right now on the Black Sea, you should be. Here are ten reasons to care about the crisis in Ukraine.
1. A civil war would kill countless people and destabilize the region.
Ukraine is the size of Spain, with a population of over 45 million; basically California, Oregon, and Washington combined. That's a lot of people, most of them ordinary citizens who just want to get on with their lives. The Bosnian civil war affected only about four million people; yet 100,000 were killed in that conflict on all sides. What kind of a bloodbath would a Ukraine war be?
And that's assuming the bloodshed stays in Ukraine. If the pro-Western forces begin to lose, Western nations may feel compelled to intervene militarily, placing the US and its allies in direct military conflict with the Russians for the first time since the Cold War.
If Russia invades Ukraine, there will likely be a civil war. If a civil war breaks out on its own, Russia will likely invade. If Russia invades, America may get drawn in, whether we want it or not.
2. A partitioned Ukraine is a dangerous Ukraine
If neither the pro-Russian forces nor the pro-independence forces can achieve victory in an invasion or civil war, Ukraine may end up split in two. And looking back over partitioned states in recent history, from Ireland to Germany to Korea to Israel, we can see how well that works out for peace and stability. It avoids war, but produces strife and terrorism. A partitioned Ukraine isn't good for anyone.
3. If Putin wins in Ukraine, he won't stop there.
Vladimir Putin is already working hard to abort post-Soviet Russia's nascent democracy, publicly bemoaning what he characterizes as the loss of Soviet "greatness." His toadies are already making noises publicly about future military action to seize control of autonomous former Soviet states in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Baltic — even Finland. This is how world wars start.
4. An incubator for terrorism
As in Syria, many of the protesters and insurgents in Ukraine are freedom fighters struggling for independence and democracy. But also just as in Syria, many more are anti-Semitic religious extremists, who seek to impose an authoritarian regime that will benefit their own ethnic or sectarian subgroup and oppress or exterminate the others. If Ukraine can unite democratically and achieve Western levels of economic fortune, terrorists won't be able to recruit — but how likely is that? More probably, a partitioned Ukraine, or a Ukraine under a Western-friendly but authoritarian regime, will continue to produce terrorists for decades. And if the terrorists seize power, anti-Western groups will have yet another rogue state to call home.
5. Sanctions hurt everyone, not just Putin and his cronies
Obama and his opposite numbers in Europe have been imposing economic sanctions against Russia, specifically meant to affect Putin's tech and military sectors. We're also targeting Putin's cronies personally, cancelling visas and seizing their US assets. Putin's friends are very wealthy and influential, so these inconveniences affect the Russian economy as well.
But this isn't the Cold War, and Russia's economy is no longer detached from the global economy. When Russia suffers, global markets suffer; and we've already seen the effects. On top of that, Russia is making its own threats, most recently suggesting it will pull out of any joint space ventures, and leaving our astronauts on the International Space Station to get home Sandra Bullock-style. Perhaps they can't hurt us as badly as we'll hurt them, but they can still affect us. And older Russians are used to bread lines. We're not.
6. War is bad for business (believe it or not)
Ukraine might seem insignificant to the average American, but our CEOs are quite concerned. According to Fortune Magazine, corporations that consider business in Ukraine critical to their strategies include Deere & Company, Caterpillar, Archer Daniels Midland, DuPont, and Monsanto.
Ukraine was a major source of grain for the Soviet Union. China, which suffers from a dearth of arable land, just made a historic deal to rent for 50 years a chunk of Ukrainian farmland the size of Belgium. US and European corporations depend on the prosperity of China, our biggest trading partner; and prosperous people need to eat.
7. Putin is destroying plans to Westernize a number of former Soviet bloc countries
Why does Putin care about Crimea and Ukraine at all? It's more than just his dream to be czar of a new Russian Empire. The West has been working for years to draw former Soviet satellites into the Western fold, and Putin noticed. This whole rigmarole started when Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych rejected an agreement for closer ties to the European Union and sought cash from Putin, and he was ousted by pro-Western forces. Today he sits in Russia, calling himself the "legitimate" president. Unfortunately he's right that the coup, while well-intentioned, was legally illegitimate, giving Putin a justification to interfere.
8. Putin's trying to build his own economic union, and he's willing to manhandle nations into joining it
The US has been working for years to expand its Transatlantic Trade and Investment free trade partnerships, and the former Soviet bloc nations are candidates. Meanwhile, Putin has established his Eurasian Economic Community customs union, an economic bloc containing Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. He's already wooing Armenia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, and Tajikistan; and he's seeking backing from China, Syria, Iran, Vietnam, and even Israel. If Ukraine sits at the end of a Russian gun barrel, they probably won't need any further convincing to give Putin whatever trade concessions he wants.
9. The last thing we need is another Cold War
The collapse of the Soviet Union actually created a panic in America's Military-Industrial Complex. Without a great enemy, with the Nazis gone and Communism collapsing, how would America justify spending half-a-trillion dollars a year on defense? Fortunately for our war profiteers, global Islamic terrorism reared its ugly head.
Now we're spending trillions to fight terror, secure our presence in the Middle East, defend Israel, contain Iran, and face down North Korea. China is our best frenemy, economic bedfellows bound by mutual animosity and mistrust. Americans are concerned about our nation's future; we appear to be entered a long, slow decline from world dominance.
Is this the time to have to deal with a neo-Soviet Union and a new Cold War? With all of our national debt, how could we begin to afford it? Putin is counting on the fact that, if he gets his dream of a Moscow-based superpower, we probably couldn't oppose him.
10. When Americans ignore foreign affairs, we suffer
It wasn't until after 9/11, when 3,000 Americans were dead, that citizens paid any attention to Reagan, Bush, and Clinton's actions regarding Afghanistan, the Taliban, the Saudis, and Al-Qaeda. All manner of criticism of our foreign and anti-terror policies exploded into public discussion — after the cows escaped and the barn burned down. We can complain about Obama's weakness on the world stage; but while G. W. Bush was strong and decisive, his decisions were terrible. We need for government to handle our foreign affairs; but we can't complacently trust the government to manage them competently, no matter which party is in office.