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Obama's Russia challenge: Are we more interested in NCAA brackets?

Crimea requires a serious response from the West.

The current dispute about Russia's seizure and annexation of Crimea has generated much TV talking-head and other media analysis and speculation. Here are personal observations from a somewhat different vantage point.

My bottom line: The Russian takeover of Crimea is not an isolated occurrence and should not be seen as such. Russian Prime Minister Putin will push us and our European partners as hard as he can, to gain what he can, until he meets what he regards as firm resistance. He does not want a shooting war with the West. But one could break out by accident or miscalculation.

Some key factors must be kept in mind:

  • Generational and conceptual differences in perception: Secretary of State John Kerry has accused Putin in the wake of the Crimean aggression and takeover, of "19th century thinking in a 21st century world." 

Kerry's statement illustrates a mindset of U.S. policymaking in the post-Vietnam era: That is, that the international agenda had moved from traditional national-interest concepts of policymaking —in which countries could be expected to pursue their own security and economic interests — to cooperative multilateral and global attacks on such common problems as climate change, poverty, eradication of disease, and human-rights abuses. The same mindset was behind President Barack Obama's stated desire for a "reset" in U.S.-Russian relations to allow a shift from adversarial stances to those in which common interests could be pursued. And it also was behind Obama's two-hour-long phone conversations with Putin during the Crimean takeover. Surely reasonable people could talk things through and reach a reasonable outcome. Well, no.

Obama Putin Faceoff - Caricatures

Cartoon by DonkeyHotey/Flickr

Trouble is, only the United States, Canada and some European Union/NATO and other developed countries share the "2lst century" context. China, as we have seen, aspires to global power and Asian domination and is not willing to be constrained by Western-made groundrules that might impede that path. It (as well as India) is not about to see its economic-development stunted, for example, by restrictions on fossil-fuel use. Countries such as Iran and North Korea, with nuclear-armed neighbors, are not about to foreswear their own development of such weapons. China for decades has been asserting claims to offshore islands, not presently under Chinese jurisdiction, and maintaining its historic preoccupation with holding unstable regions within Chinese borders.

Whether governed by czars, commissars, or what might be considered the present czar/commissar governing model, Russia historically has abused human rights domestically, scorned truly democratic institutions and been preoccupied with control of bordering states. Putin has characterized the breakup of the Soviet Union, and spinning off of Ukraine, the Baltic states, Georgia and other now-independent countries, as a great historical tragedy.

A former KGB operative, raised in the Soviet system, he also perceives the United States and NATO/EU countries as adversaries rather than partners. Putin has been more than willing to buy western goods — paying for them withRussian energy exports — and to maintain Russia's place in the G-8 group of leading economic nations. But, in his mind, the U.S. and its European partners remain the greatest threat to Russian security. Thus, in the United Nations Security Council, where Russia has a veto, and in places such as Syria and Iran, Russia has continued the Soviet-era policy of working to thwart U.S./EU aspirations and interests.

  • Ukraine is not an exception: Russia seized territory in Georgia in 2008 and kept it. When a Russian-leaning regime was deposed in Ukraine — after the Ukrainian government had yielded to Russian pressure and renounced an agreement with the EU in favor of one with Russia — Putin was furious. He would not tolerate a Western-leaning Ukraine on Russian borders. Masked Russian troopers then moved into Crimea, where Russia has important naval facilities, and took it from Ukraine. Another slice of Ukrainian territory, abutting Crimea, also was seized. 

The U.S. and EU have responded with modest economic sanctions — referred to as "Obama's pranks" in a tweet by one of Putin's senior colleagues — but have not sent weapons or military advisers to Ukraine. Promises instead have been made of future economic support.  (This brings to mind Adolf Hitler's famous 1930s statement, when warned that German aggression might alienate the Pope: "How many battalions has the Pope?") Until or unless he sees signs that the U.S. and NATO countries might actually counter him militarily, Putin will be tempted to seize other parts of eastern Ukraine and, perhaps, to issue ultimatatums to Poland and the Baltic states to play the Putin game or risk a cutoff, for instance, from Russian energy.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Mar 27, 9:56 a.m. Inappropriate

Maybe closer attention needs to be given to the Russian argument about U.S. intentions in its "sphere of influence."

A historical context includes when Obama visited Russia after he was first elected. It did not go well. Obama’s policy hopes did not bear fruit. The Russians were far more interested in whether Obama would change the policy of former U.S. President George W. Bush. At the very least, the Russians wanted the Americans to stop supporting Ukraine’s and Georgia’s pro-Western tendencies.

But not only did Obama stick with the Bush policy, he dispatched U.S. Vice President Joe Biden to visit Ukraine and Georgia to drive home the continuity. This was followed by Biden’s interview with The Wall Street Journal, in which he essentially said that Russia’s influence in these regions undermines their power. Biden’s statements were completely consistent with the decision to send him to Georgia and Ukraine, and an Obama administration attempt to back away from the statement were not convincing. Certainly, the Russians were not convinced. The only conclusion the Russians could draw was that the United States regarded them as a geopolitical cripple of little consequence.

If the Russians allow the Americans to poach in what Moscow regards as its sphere of influence without responding, the Russian position throughout the former Soviet Union would begin to unravel—the precise outcome they must believe is what the Americans hope for. So after Obama's 2008 visit,Moscow took two steps. Moscow increased its strategic assertiveness, escalating the tempo of Russian air operations near the United Kingdom and Alaska. The Russians have decisive power in the Ukraine/Georgia arenas— and can act if they wish, and Biden's and McCain's recent visit to express American support must gain a few worried frowns.

The Russian move against Georgia was decisive, and yet the Americans continue to act as if Russia is not a country to be taken seriously, and that Washington will therefore continue to disregard Russian interests in the FSU. In other words, the Americans were threatening. The Russians must respond, or by default, they would be accepting the American analysis of the situation— by extension, so would the rest of the world. Obama continues to back the Russians with nuclear weapons into a corner.

George Friedman has written that the fall of the Ukrainian government and its replacement with one that appears to be oriented toward the West represents a major defeat for the Russian Federation. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia accepted the reality that the former Eastern European satellite states would be absorbed into the Western economic and political systems. Moscow claims to have been assured that former Soviet republics would be left as a neutral buffer zone and not absorbed. Washington and others have disputed that this was promised. In any case, it was rendered meaningless when the Baltic States were admitted to NATO and the European Union. The result was that NATO, which had been almost 1,000 miles from St. Petersburg, was now less than approximately 100 miles away.

This left Belarus and Ukraine as buffers. Ukraine is about 300 miles from Moscow at its closest point. Were Belarus and Ukraine both admitted to NATO, the city of Smolensk, which had been deep inside the Soviet Union, would have become a border town. Russia has historically protected itself with its depth. It moved its borders as far west as possible, and that depth deterred adventurers -- or, as it did with Hitler and Napoleon, destroyed them. The loss of Ukraine as a buffer to the West leaves Russia without that depth and hostage to the intentions and capabilities of Europe and the United States.

Damning telephone intercepts make clear that the US invested something like $5 billion in an apparent desire to change the government there from the highly corrupt Yanukovych to someone who may be equally detestable, but who could be controlled by Western financial interests. And then there was the other telephone intercept where U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, in a now-famous conversation, declared her strong contempt for the European Union and its weakness and counseled the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine to proceed quickly and without the Europeans to piece together a specific opposition coalition before the Russians saw what was happening and took action. There seems to be little follow-up on these amazing revelations and the Western Press thinks it only worthwhile to focus on Russia’s violation of international law and the Ukrainian Constitution as regards what was done against the highly questionable government in Kiev.

The redoubtable Paul Craig Roberts is of the opinion that Ukrainian oil and gas deposits will be gobbled up by US/EU interests together with what I think will be the forthcoming issue; valuable farmland. The so-called Virgin Lands of the former Soviet Union were to be found, to a decent extent, in the Western Ukraine and they are still there. China knows this full well and leased some 5% of all Ukrainian farmlands to supplement the growing needs of its people back home. The fact that they are also interested in vast areas of arable Africa also says a lot. A diverse set of food supplies are going to be paramount if there is a low grade global conflict or if we see Al Gore’s climatological nightmares come to reality and depletion of oil begins affecting the present industrial agriculture we now have.

And now the fall of the Ukrainian government and its replacement with one that appears to be oriented toward the West represents a major defeat for the Russian Federation. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia accepted the reality that the former Eastern European satellite states would be absorbed into the Western economic and political systems. Moscow claims to have been assured that former Soviet republics would be left as a neutral buffer zone and not absorbed. Washington and others have disputed that this was promised. In any case, it was rendered meaningless when the Baltic States were admitted to NATO and the European Union. The result was that NATO, which had been almost 1,000 miles from St. Petersburg, was now less than approximately 100 miles away.

Russia has historically protected itself with its depth. It moved its borders as far west as possible, and that depth deterred adventurers -- or, as it did with Hitler and Napoleon, destroyed them. The loss of Ukraine as a buffer to the West leaves Russia without that depth and hostage to the intentions and capabilities of Europe and the United States.

Posted Thu, Mar 27, 10:34 a.m. Inappropriate

Excellent, knowledgeable comments. No one would question that Russia always has depended on buffer states (or, if you will, satellites)for security. It is up to an independent Ukraine, however, to decide the nature of its relationship with Russia.

Whether leaning westward or eastward at any given time, Ukraine must have stable and peaceful relations with Russia. That is a given. Russia cannot, however, unilaterally seize Ukrainian territory and annex it to Russia or, as seems possible, seize more of Ukraine and install a puppet regime in Kiev. That threatens the security of neighboring states and sets all kinds of counter-reactions in motion.

Posted Mon, Mar 31, 8:05 a.m. Inappropriate

Good article, Ted (and some solid points in response from Unsustainability), but the realpolitik at work here is that Putin knows Europe doesn't have the strength to stop him and that the USA doesn't have the stomach. He's got a clear path and he knows it. It's no more up to Ukraine to determine what kind of relationship it has with Russia than it was up to Poland or Austria to have a say in their relationships with Germany in the 1930's. Those 80,000 Russian troops now amassed at the Ukraine border imply that Putin is not too interested in a give-and-take debate over regional dynamics.

Posted Thu, Mar 27, 11:15 a.m. Inappropriate

Ted

You need to read up on your European history and Crosscut needs to employ a fact checker.

It was Stalin and not Hitler who asked the famous question " The Pope? How many divisions has he got?"
http://quotes.dictionary.com/The_Pope_How_many_divisions_has_he_got#Qo5uRKM4hAO3wfTM.99

WSDW

Posted Thu, Mar 27, 11:58 a.m. Inappropriate

You are correct. It was Stalin, which I realized shortly after the piece was in print. Thanks for helping keep history straight.

Posted Thu, Mar 27, 7:11 p.m. Inappropriate

Randy Newman had an answer years ago to situations just like this.

Djinn

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