It can't be easy living in Russia's shadow, and I envy no one in that position. Given its long history and, consequently, the temperament of its leaders (and a good part of its population), Russia for the foreseeable future will be a regional power with an attitude. Thus it will ever be concerned with what happens on its borders. Like it or not, that's how it is. America can't change this situation, though it surely can exacerbate it.
And it has—by pushing NATO, the Cold War anti-Soviet alliance, up to Russia's borders; by talking about putting interceptor missiles in former Soviet-allied nations in central Europe; by dangling NATO membership before former Soviet republics Ukraine and Georgia; and by cutting deals with other former Soviet republics in central Asia. Yet the fact of Western contributory provocation is probably of little comfort to the innocent people of Ukraine.
So, what to do? Ukrainian military resistance would bring disaster. So would U.S. and NATO intervention. Destroying a village in order to save it is too reminiscent of America's losing strategy in Vietnam. Perhaps some understanding between Ukraine and Russia along the lines of Finland's would be possible; this would entail, in the words of Zbigniew Brzezinski, "mutually respectful neighbors, wide-ranging economic relations both with Russia and the EU, but no participation in any military alliance viewed by Moscow as directed at itself."
That is for the people of Ukraine—not someone sitting safely in the United States—to decide. Ukrainian individuals and voluntary organizations should call the shots. I can see no good reason the central government in Kiev should determine for everyone in the country whether Ukrainians will trade with Europe or with Russia. The binary choice is a false alternative, and the two contending power groups should not demand that sort of choice. Free trade is about the liberty of individuals, not the power of governments, which would be well-advised to keep hands off.
None of this means that Americans can't help individual Ukrainians. There is one important way to help without expanding Washington's power, which achieved alarming proportions many generations ago.
I'm talking about opening America's borders—scrapping immigration controls. Ukrainians who want to get out of their dicey neighborhood, whether permanently or temporarily, should be free to move to the United States. Look at it this way: How dare we Americans confine Ukrainians to a condition they might desperately wish to escape? How can we imagine ourselves to be a humane people while engaged in a policy with such odious consequences and implications for liberty?
Opening the borders, of course, is not offered here as a comprehensive answer to the conflict between Russia and the Ukrainians who want to be free of Russian influence, but it may be an answer for some Ukrainians. How many, no one can know. But it makes little difference. Let them in! There are about a million Ukrainians in the United States (2006 census figures), second only to Canada outside of Ukraine itself, with the largest centers in New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, Cleveland, and Indianapolis. The newcomers need not be strangers in a strange land, though they should be welcome throughout the country.
Respecting the freedom to move would not only help the individuals who choose to exercise it; it might also have benefits in Ukraine itself. The kleptocrats of all parties, who have used Ukraine like their personal milch cow, might finally realize their folly if they witnessed an exodus of their most enterprising and ambitious residents.
But let's not stop there. Why should Ukrainians get special treatment? There are oppressed and impoverished people everywhere, and it is no more humane for Americans to condemn them to bad conditions than it is to condemn the Ukrainians. Respecting the freedom to move is a matter of justice.
Unsurprisingly, justice would have good consequences. "Immigration restrictions trap many millions in Third World misery. Economists' consensus estimate is that open borders would roughly double world GDP, enough to virtually eliminate global poverty," George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan writes (PDF).
So forget guaranteeing loans to corrupt government officials. Forget facing down the Russians over Crimea. Open the borders!
This column originally appeared at the Future of Freedom Foundation.