According to Merriam-Webster, the term realpolitik is “a system of politics based on a country’s situation and its needs rather than on ideas about what is morally right or wrong” The present crisis in Ukraine is a perfect example of policies based on reality as opposed to those policies based on wishful thinking as to what the world should be. Ignoring reality can have dire consequences and many realities have already been ignored. The first reality is that Ukraine, despite being completely within Europe, is a region divided along divergent cultural and ethnic lines; while the western region looks towards Poland, Slovakia and Hungary, the eastern portion looks towards Russia as a kindred culture. Despite being the third largest exporter of grains in the world and having an industrialized base, the Ukranian economy is in shambles, thanks in part to corruption and mismanagement and in need of financial assistance; in steps the European Union, always looking to expand eastwards. This triggered a counter offer from the Kremlin in the form of emergency loans to bail out its stricken economy without the tough austerity conditions imposed by the EU, which, among other things, would have resulted in higher gas prices, an outcome hardly designed to be popular, not to mention the myriad of new legislation and adjustments required by the EU. Add to the cauldron the reality that like it or not, Putin is the 500 pound gorilla in the room and the notion that bad KGB habits die hard and it is hardly surprising that the Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych accepted the Kremlin’s offer. The riots that ensued, all in Kiev, finally forced Yanukovych to flee. The world press completely ignored the fact that this amounted to a coup and that Yanukovych was the duly elected president. If the electorate wanted to remove him, they could have done so in the coming May elections.
The other reality ignored, or at least glossed over, has to do with Crimea, a 10,100 sq mile peninsula located in the northern coast of the Black Sea with a majority ethnic Russian population. In 1783, empress Catherine the Great annexed the Crimean Khanate into the Russian empire. Crimea continued to be Russian until 1954, when the then Soviet premier Nikita Khruschev literally gave away the Crimea to his “adopted” country, Ukraine, as a good will gesture to mark the 300th anniversary of Ukraine’s merger with Tsarist Russia in 1654. At the time of the “gift” it mattered little who had control of Crimea, since they all were part of the monolithic Soviet state, but after the breakup of the Soviet Union and the emergence of an independent Ukraine, it has become a real problem. What could be taken at first sight as a mere territorial dispute is magnified by the fact that the Russian Black Sea fleet, plus its submarine pens, are based in Sevastopol and in exchange for use of the bases, Russia pays millions to Ukraine in rental fees; compounding the situation, it is Russia’s only access to the Mediterranean and since Russia has a very limited number of ice-free ports year round, is it surprising that Putin reacted in the way he did?
The last tidbit of reality is the question: given the fact that the Russians already occupy Crimea, what are we going to do about it? And, why should we do anything about it? The answer to the first question is that there is very little that we can do except adopt ridiculous postures that lead nowhere. The EU relies heavily on Russian gas for its winter heating and the trade losses would be very significant indeed. Since Angela Merkel is the de facto leader of the EU and she knows the Russians very well from personal experience, she is loath to back any sanctions against Russia. As to the second question, it is none of our business. We have no interests that are being threatened and the notion that we should send American ships into the Black Sea is so ridiculous that it merits no examination.
There is the remote possibility that Ukraine might split into two areas. Europe is full of nations that have separated, some peacefully like Czechoslovakia or violently, like Yugoslavia. It has happened before and will happen again, with or without our acquiescence. Realpolitik means to accept the reality as it is, not as we would wish it to be. That is the difference between a former KGB operative and a former community organizer.