International law, to have real strength, must apply to everyone.
International law precludes military interventions that breach the sovereignty of other countries. The Russian seizure of Crimea is clearly such an intervention and thus a violation of international law. Consistency requires that we who favor an international order based upon law rather than brute force must oppose Russia's seizure of Crimea.
Nevertheless all military interventions are not identical. Some interventions are far more dangerous and destructive than others. Such interventions typically involve massive use of military force, extensive killing, and determined opposition by the local population. When compared with other military interventions of recent history, the Russian seizure of Ukraine seems relatively benign: it required minor military force, entailed little killing and appears to be welcomed, rather than opposed, by most people of Crimea. Indeed, Russia has strong historical ties with Crimea, and the latter's inclusion in Ukraine was rather a cultural and political anomaly.
These considerations do not excuse Russia's seizure of Ukraine. But they do suggest that this action is far less malevolent and destabilizing than United States interventions in the Philippines, Vietnam, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya (to mention a few of our more egregious intrusions). And in view of our own endemic penchant for military interventions, Washington cannot be a very credible critic of Moscow's Crimean actions.
What should be done about Russia's seizure of Crimea? As all rational observers understand, a military response would be truly disastrous. But even sanctions are not a good idea. Sanctions against a proud nation deeply convinced of its own moral rectitude will motivate intransigence rather than flexible compromise. Moreover, the international use of sanctions is, to say the least, extremely uneven. What sanctions have been imposed upon the numerous American interventions, or upon Israel for its 47 year long occupation of the West Bank and Gaza?
A three-point plan for resolving the Crimean crisis has been suggested by thoughtful people concerned with peace and justice. First, Ukraine should institute a federal system, giving different regions of the country considerable autonomy. Under such a federal system, Crimea might return to Ukrainian sovereignty but maintain a special relationship with Russia. Second, Ukraine should honor multi-ethnic rights and accept Russian as a second official language. Third (and most importantly), Ukraine should remain politically and militarily nonaligned. Thus Ukraine should not be part of NATO, and the NATO endeavor to encircle Russia should stop permanently.
International peace benefits greatly from a cooperative relationship between the United States and Russia. In recent years such a relationship has facilitated productive negotiations with Iran, constraints upon the civil war in Syria, reduction of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan, curtailment of Al Qaeda and quarantine of North Korea. The Crimean crisis must not sabotage the vital cooperation between Russia and the USA.
The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center's "Peace Train" column runs every Friday in the Colorado Daily.