Just as it was in the bad old days of the Cold War, it’s the west — led by the United States — warning the Russians that they’d better behave, or else, and the Russians acting as if they don’t need Washington’s or the European Union’s approval for their actions.
This time, though, realists must concede that at least as far as the future of Crimea is concerned Moscow has a plausible argument for interfering in the affairs of its former satellite, Ukraine, and it’s unlikely Vladimir Putin will be put off by Washington’s warnings.
“President Obama told President Putin that, if Russia has concerns about the treatment of ethnic Russian and minority populations in Ukraine, the appropriate way to address them is peacefully,” the White House announced Saturday.
The appropriate way, it added, is “through direct engagement with the government of Ukraine and through the dispatch of international observers under the auspices of the United Nations Security Council or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).”
Fine words. The president was no doubt sincere (and no doubt aware that his many critics, domestic and foreign, would have a field day if he failed to speak out against Moscow’s moves).
So Obama made his 90-minute phone call to Putin, and he chose his words carefully. But in the final analysis they’re only words. Will sanctions follow?
“The question is: Are those costs big enough to cause Russia not to take advantage of the situation in the Crimea? That’s the $64,000 question,” Brig. Gen. Kevin Ryan, a retired Army officer who served as defense attaché in the American Embassy in Moscow, commented.
Ryan, now a Harvard scholar, leads a group of former Russian and American officials who engage in back-channel talks so his opinion carries weight.
In the meantime, a slightly different position was taken by Michael McFaul, who until recently was the American ambassador to Russia.
“There needs to be a serious discussion as soon as possible about economic sanctions so they (Russia’s business leaders) realize there will be costs,” he told the New York Times. “They should know there will be consequences and those should be spelled out before they take further actions.”
But well-meaning advocates of sanctions need to consider some inconvenient facts: Moscow’s attention so far has been concentrated on Crimea, where a large majority of the people speak Russian, used to be Russian and want to return to Russia’s embrace, however strange that may seem to westerners. In addition, it is the home to Russia’s largest naval base.
And there’s this: One of the first acts taken by the fledgling government that has taken over in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, was to cancel the law that had granted those that speak Russian rights that were designed to allow them to preserve their culture.
Is it any wonder the majority of the Crimeans have made it clear they prefer allegiance to Moscow rather than Kiev?
The way the Russian troops arrived in Crimea — their uniforms bore no insignia and they refused to identify themselves – was needlessly ominous and intimidating. But that alone isn’t likely to turn the argument in Ukraine’s favor.
Keep this in mind: In Crimea, many people still revere the memory of Stalin, one of the most brutal leaders in history … but his victims were “the other” and not those who call Crimea home.
And there may be little Washington can do to persuade Crimeans they’re really Ukrainians. We may have no choice but to accept their wishes.
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