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Not Putin Up With It: Why Americans Should Care About the Ukrainian Situation

  |   By: Steven Boydstun     |   Opinion

In American Foreign Policy class in college I said to my professor, “This may be a dumb question, but is Russia part of Europe or Asia?” He grinned and said “Well actually the state department and scholars have been wrestling with that question for decades. ‘Eurasia’ is the term we finally came up with.”

Meanwhile in America, living in such a big country sharing borders with only two other countries, we can at times forget just how interconnected countries in Europe are geographically, economically, and culturally. It is easy to look at the situation in Ukraine and think “That’s their problem,” but that would be a short-sighted and frankly naïve position to take. I’m not suggesting the United States should be involved in every tiff that happens overseas. What I am saying is we should always ask ourselves how foreign affairs affect our national interest and how they align with our ideals as Americans.

So what’s Crimea all about?

In short, Crimea is a peninsula in Ukraine which serves as a strategic military post for Russia. It was given to Ukraine by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954, which was fine at the time because Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. However, with the end of the Cold War came a liberated Ukraine, which put the Crimean region of Ukraine under independent Ukrainian control.

Interestingly, residents in Crimea overwhelmingly identify as Russian rather than Ukrainian. This may suggest Russian takeover in Crimea is welcome, and several on-the-street interviews with residents have reflected that. Knowing he would be well-received, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops into Crimea to take back the region for Russia.

This resulted in condemnations from world leaders and organizations basically saying “You can’t do that!” To which Putin in essence replied “Psh, yeah whatever.”

Putin points to the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan to highlight the alleged hypocrisy of the West on issues such as this. This difference is – opinions on the wars in those respective countries aside – the United States did not enter those countries to acquire new territory or engage in empire building.

Putin has demonstrated by his actions a few years ago in Georgia and his current actions in Ukraine he is interested in reabsorbing many of the old Soviet countries to make Russia bigger and more powerful than ever.

So why should we care?

We should care anytime an elected dictator uses his country’s military to subjugate other countries in order to consolidate his country’s power and geopolitical advantage. Eastern Europe rightly gets more nervous by the day as Putin wields absolute power and faces little opposition. So why aren’t more countries making anything more than political statements condemning these actions?

Here’s a hint: according to the CIA World Factbook Russia is second only to Saudi Arabia in crude oil exports. You mean leaders wouldn’t stand up for democratic principles if it means an interruption in oil supply? Say it isn’t so.

I talked with former classmate Kaitlin Conway, who earned her bachelor’s degree at Troy University in political science and is currently a master’s student in international conflict analysis and resolution at George Mason University. Kaitlin points out Russia is operating under a Cold War model that was thought to have shifted, changed, or been replaced entirely after 9/11. The post-9/11 model is the idea that modern wars were not going to be between nations, but within nations and with smaller, unorganized groups, e.g. the Taliban.

But that’s not what’s happening in this modern conflict. This is vintage soviet.

I asked Kaitlin why Americans and Alabamians in particular should care about this. She said, “In a sense this conflict shows us the world really has not changed much. I think it’s more about how the US should be perceived. Are we still the defenders and promoters of economic freedom? Some would argue we never were, nor should we ever be. Many, however, see the US as being the champion of this.”

Because Europe is so connected with Russia economically it is going to be hard for many European states to act in stopping Russian invasions. This is just the latest example of the need for energy independence, but that’s a whole other column.

So why is Putin going to keep doing this? Because he can. Because we (the United States and our allies) let him. If Putin knew Europe was not dependent on Russia for oil and America would stand up for allies in Eastern Europe to the point of using force if necessary, and not just bluffing about it, he would not go around planting Russian flags in the soil of former Soviet states.

I’m not saying we should be the world’s police and intervene in every overseas squabble. But this is more than just a squabble and part of being the world’s superpower is a responsibility to be a force for good (which we would define as democracy, human rights, free markets, etc.) and be intimidating as hell to those who want to spread tyranny and usurp the rights of the people. When rising powers like Russia and China know America will sit back and say “What happens across the sea is your business,” they know they can do just about whatever they want.

Power is a zero-sum game. When we cede it, others will take it.

Follow Steven on Twitter at @skboydstun

Steven Boydstun holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Political Science from Troy University (Troy) and a Master of Public Administration degree from The University of Alabama. Views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of his employer or any other affiliate.