global politics, relationally

Crimea and IR Theory


The Russian occupation of Crimea is an interesting Rorschach test for foreign policy analysis, in an impressive number of ways.  I note these to make an analytical point, about the difficulty of applying political science concepts to ongoing events, rather than to make a political one.  In particular, the coverage seems to reinforce cleavages across the rational/emotional divide, the realist/liberal divide, levels of analysis, and, normatively, the national versus human security divide.  Pedagogically useful, but not a great advertisement for conceptual progress in the field.

To whit:

-Are we playing chess with a master, or are we playing chicken with a crazy person?  We’re likely not at either end of this spectrum (certainly not at the master player end), but where pundits put us on this spectrum seems to follow their well-established foreign policy views pretty closely.  Hawks see chess, doves see a frustrated man lashing out in weakness.

-Relatedly, is this part of a broader Russian expansionism, or an opportunistic move made possible by the fact that there were already Russian forces in place?  This speaks to the potential for escalation – if the former, Russia is likelier to be willing to escalate to large-scale violence than if the latter.  The (as I write ongoing) standoff at the airport in Belbek can be read either way, with unarmed Ukrainian troops facing armed Russian troops, capable of removing the Ukrainians but choosing not to do so – as a patient Russia, or as an escalation-averse Russia.

-Do we act primarily in public, or in private?  Public foreign policy (boycotts, ejection from the G-8, etc.) show strength (whatever that may be), and may have longer-term deterrent effect, but back Russia into a corner.  Private threats (or promises) make us look weak (whatever that may mean) but allow more scope for a diplomatic solution that leaves Russia with face but without Crimea.  Opinions here don’t seem to map onto the political spectrum quite as well.

-Are we talking here about Russia as a meaningfully anthropomorphized institutional actor, or are we talking about Putin?   Most discussions of the crisis that I’ve seen seem to assume that Putin is firmly in charge of what his forces (at least we assume they’re his forces) are doing.  But is he?  Should we be looking here at the third image (Putin playing chess), the first (Putin losing his grip on reality), or the second (Putin not having all that firm a grip on people acting in Russia’s name in Ukraine)?

-From the perspective of someone who teaches in a global governance program, the international response, almost universally shared, is notable for its sovereigntism (by which I mean the assumption that the sovereign state is the ontological starting point, both empirically and normatively, of international politics).  Crimea is a part of Ukraine more or less as a historical accident, and a majority of its population seems to be interested in being part of Russia.  Furthermore, while Putin is pretty clearly being disingenuous when he says that the crisis was set off by the violent overthrow of a democratically elected President, he’s technically correct.  And yet the international response begins with the assumption of the sanctity of recognized existing borders.