If you looked at the evening news or read a newspaper recently, you know that a popular uprising in Ukraine led to the creation of a new government there. This was followed by Russian troops securing a portion of Ukraine traditionally thought of as “Russian” in Crimea, the province on the Black Sea that borders Russia. Frankly, this latter development should be no surprise. The question is whether or not Russian President Vladimir Putin will stop there or make further incursions into other parts of Ukraine.
Despite comments by Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and other elected Republicans placing the cause of the crisis at the feet of President Obama and his administration, there is little to nothing that the United States could have done to stop the events from unfolding. (A tip of the hat to the Republican Senate leadership for trying to score domestic political points during a time of international crisis — true statesmen. There is plenty of time after the situation is resolved to start calling names and investigating the political opposition.) Vladimir Putin is an ex-KGB colonel with visions of empire dancing in his head. If Ukraine succeeded in rejecting ties to Russia and moved into a close relationship with Europe and the West, his own vision of a great and powerful resurgent Russia would be in grave jeopardy. No matter what the United States or any other nation did or said, Putin would have acted no differently.
If one wants to point fingers at what we have done or failed to do, a more apt comparison would be the Russian war with Georgia in August of 2008. As was claimed over the last few days in Crimea, Russian forces drove the Georgian military out of South Ossetia in order to protect Russian citizens living there. The area is still occupied by Russian forces. The international community protested, but took no real steps to deter Russia from acting. The Russians, especially under Putin, will act wherever they feel like it in the geographic areas with historical ties to their country and where “Russians” are living. Remember that in the glory days of the Soviet Union, entire populations were moved out of their native lands and Russians were re-settled there. This is the case in Crimea where the native Tatar population was under constant threat of elimination starting in the 1800s. After decades of discrimination including massacres and forced starvation, in 1944 Stalin shipped the remaining Tatars out of Crimea. The point is that Russia feels that it can act with impunity in its own backyard and has a long history of doing so.
So the question remains as to what can or should be done. The options are wide-ranging but probably depend most on whether Putin stops with the invasion of Crimea or if in the next few days, he moves into other areas in Ukraine. While international action is likely even if Putin stays out of the rest of Ukraine, it will probably be of a token nature and certainly, in Putin’s calculation, worth the cost. Should he move into eastern Ukraine, the situation could become grave as the international community will almost certainly put significant pressure on Russia, especially economic sanctions, which will then cause Russia to implement its own sanctions and actions to put pressure on Europe, especially through the disruption of oil and natural gas exports to Europe.
There are many unknowns. Drawing upon his KGB days, I have no doubt that Putin is willing to create an “incident” in eastern Ukraine that gives him an excuse to send troops to protect the Russian speaking citizens living there. So far, the new Ukrainian government and their military have shown remarkable restraint in not confronting the Russians in Crimea or elsewhere, thus robbing Putin of his excuse, despite his bizarre press conference yesterday where he claimed no Russian troops were in Crimea and that the situation was one of extreme lawlessness and violence with hundreds of thousands of refugees pouring across the border. (It is hard to know how he can make such claims in a press conference while keeping from bursting out laughing. He must also know that there are hundreds of western journalists in the area loudly telling a different story. He doesn’t care — he is playing to a different audience — and he is also putting the international community on notice that he will say or do whatever it takes to get his way.)
Given the emotion on both sides and the numbers of people moving about the country with weapons at their disposal, it is difficult to believe that peace will continue to prevail. Should widespread violence break out it will get very ugly very fast. To prevent that, it is imperative that diplomatic efforts succeed in getting impartial international observers on the ground. So far several nations have offered their services and Ukraine is willing to allow them in, but Russia has not agreed to do so in the Crimea and also questions their veracity should they deploy to other parts of Ukraine. Putin is in no hurry to resolve the situation.
So despite the armchair quarterbacks and those trying to score political points on the American domestic front, Putin would have done what he did no matter who was our president. It merely adds to his image of self-aggrandizement and self-importance that he can disrupt US foreign policy by refusing to play along be it in Syria, Iran or Ukraine. His sole goal is to restore what he thinks is Russia’s rightful place in the world as a major power. Meddling in Ukraine is his way of making that point. I hope that the international community, with the United States out front, comes up with concrete actions that check Putin’s power grab and puts him back in his place. He needs to be disabused of the notion that he has any real power.
Regardless, the next few days will be interesting and if I was a Ukrainian I would be worried.