Several things logically and immediately come to mind as key themes stemming from the conflict in Ukraine. Some of the obvious ones: Don’t mess with Russia, the Cold War is about to reblossom and I’m seeing a little Berlin reenactment here.
Though these are all quite pivotal for the international sphere, what are the takeaways for the average individual watching from his or her television at home? The possible surrendering of Crimea to Russia really has no direct effect on the standard American citizen. While the most dramatic and significant regime change since the Cold War occurs, the typical American will go about his or her normal life utterly unfazed.
However, U.S. interactions with Russia and Ukraine related to the conflict in Crimea offer a number of life lessons that may be useful for you, the ordinary citizen, when facing a crisis. I have come up with a number of guidelines to advise the individual through a conflict of any size. These items are derived from the United States’ incorrect and unsuccessful actions leading up to and throughout the crisis as well as the manner in which the United States has conducted itself in other international predicaments.
Take your position. In a conflict, you must choose your stance first — wishy-washy behavior is useless and can be detrimental when your opposition sees that you are unclear on your stance. The United States was in this position with regard to nuclear proliferation in Iran. Our government and the Israeli government failed to convey their requests clearly, which made cooperation unappealing to Iran. This ultimately opened the door for Vladimir Putin to take advantage of our weak attitude, as Russia’s solidarity with Iran combined with our past indecision to give Putin the upper hand.
In stating your position, be sure that your arguments are concise, fully developed and not hollow. The ability to back yourself up is crucial to others’ compliance to your demands. When the United States showed failure to back up our threats to Syria — by not cracking down on the use of chemical weapons, as we had promised — we set ourselves up to be taken lightly in the future. Currently, threats by the United States hold little weight and everyone knows it, especially Putin.
Draw your red line. You need to decide how much you are willing to concede before you put your foot down. Speak up, since you must make your boundaries absolutely clear — Putin does not respect the red line that the United States has drawn. Why? The United States has a history of being ambiguous in terms of its red lines, with Iran’s nuclear proliferation crisis a significant example. No one was quite sure where the American and Israeli limits actually were, curbing their credibility. In this situation, Putin is aware that the Americans lack clarity and credence — thus he doesn’t feel compelled to take them seriously. This is merely a result of the United States’ poor clarity when deciding and drawing its line.
Follow through. Your reputation depends on it. This has been a critical factor in the United States’ involvement in the Ukraine crisis, as past actions have affected our current ability to be taken seriously. Once you make a threat — such as politically and economically isolating Russia if it implemented troops in Crimea, as the United States threatened earlier in the crisis — you must act on it. The American government has failed to do so on multiple occasions. Syria and Iran both come to mind as contributing factors to the growing sentiment that the United States makes threats it doesn’t have the confidence to act upon.
On these occasions, America has imposed a red line but has failed to follow through on penalizing the opposition. By following this model, you will only build yourself a reputation of being unreliable, feeble, insecure and unassertive, and this will continue to plague you in all future transactions. In Ukraine, Putin is well aware of and even capitalizing on these negative qualities by disregarding the United States’ threats and mandates completely. The American government’s threats of sanctions and withdrawal from important meetings in Russia do “not exactly seem to strike terror into the Russian president’s heart,” as the Economist put it earlier this month. That is, our country’s supposedly big and powerful voice has evolved to mean absolutely nothing.
Engage your opposition. Isolation is not the answer. The United States has imposed sanctions that “could include freezing assets or preventing Americans from doing business with certain individuals,” the New York Times reported last week. Who is this helping? How could this possibly be beneficial? By isolating Russia, we simply cut business for ourselves by disrupting trade and positive transactions between the countries. Is impeding our own country’s commerce really worth it, considering the impending relationship barrier and economic loss? Instead, by holding more discussions to consider every facet of the problem — hearing people’s interests that haven’t previously been evaluated — it is possible for you to solve your conflict through engaging the opposition, rather than isolating it.
While engaging your opposition, take care to be civilized. Cordiality really does serve more of a purpose than people realize — in fact, it’s quite vital. No one will feel inclined to do business with an impolite, pompous adversary. This is something the United States should take to heart. According to a statement issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry, “the threats and ultimatums made it difficult to reach ‘honest arrangements’ that would help stabilize the situation in Ukraine,” the Times reported. Attitude may determine the outcome and fluidity of your interactions, so at least pretend to be nice.
The next time you take on an imperialistic giant — or even just your mother — take this into consideration. Do the opposite of what the United States is doing in Ukraine now. It’s in everyone’s best interest.
Megan Grapengeter-Rudnick ’17 can be reached at [email protected].