It appears that Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to go all in with his seizure of Crimean territory, and as far as he is concerned, the rest of the world can take a flying leap. Unless other nations are willing to go to war with Russia to defend the territorial integrity of Ukraine, then Putin has a relatively free hand.
For a time after the election of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Ukrainian forces were on the offensive, pushing back against the pro-separatist fighters who had taken control of important cities in eastern Ukraine. It was no secret that Russia had been providing arms and leadership for the pro-Russian rebels, and so a setback for their insurgency would be an embarrassment for Putin.
Meanwhile, Russia now has control of Crimea, the peninsula that extends southward from the Ukrainian mainland into the Black Sea. Having annexed Crimea, Russia now holds a territory with which it has no land connection, but in recent days Russian troops have pushed into the Ukrainian coastal region with the apparent intention of seizing land that would form a land bridge with Crimea.
Putin denies it, of course. Putinís statements over the past few months have been a reliable guide to what is happening: Assume that the opposite of what he is saying is true and you will know what is going on.
In recent days, Russian troops have been captured inside Ukraine and tanks and other equipment have been seen in Ukraine.
The secretary-general of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said it plainly: ďDespite Moscowís hollow denials, it is now clear that Russian troops and equipment have illegally crossed the border.Ē
They and pro-separatist Ukrainians had moved into the coastal town of Novoazovsk, and it appeared they would move on to the important port city of Mariupol. Ukraine would feel the loss of Mariupol because it is the port through which Ukraineís grain exports travel. From Mariupol, Russians will be able to proceed to Crimea and the oil reserves in the nearby Black Sea.
President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have discussed the toughened economic sanctions they are likely to impose on Russia as Russian aggression grows more blatant. But Putin has shown he cares little about the response of the West.
There has been talk in the West, and among Ukrainians, about inclusion of Ukraine within NATO. NATO leaders say they would listen to a Ukrainian request to join NATO, but NATO members have long been reluctant to extend their reach so close to Russiaís borders. The present conflict shows why. If Ukraine were a member of NATO at present, the United States and its allies would be pledged to come to the defense of Ukraine. On the one hand, the promise of going to war against Russia might be seen as a deterrent. On the other hand, the members of NATO, the United States included, are not ready to go to war against a nuclear-armed enemy to defend eastern Ukraine. Russiaís action is a travesty, but it is not the kind of travesty worth triggering World War III. Putin knows this, and so he is acting with impunity.
The community of nations is not without meaningful responses to Russiaís aggression. Already, Russia is paying economically. It can be forced to pay a harsher economic price. Russia must recognize it is making a pariah of itself. This means the European nations that have formed extensive commercial ties must shed them. Ultimately, the Russian people will have something to say about the toll of war to which they are subjected. Putinís adventurism has been interpreted as an effort to shore up his weak economic position and waning popularity. He is popular now, but it is only gradually dawning on the Russian people that Putin has actually mounted a new war.
He has launched Russia on a course that in the end will only harm Russia. He may have his dreams about the glory of the Russian motherland. He may be able to summon specious comparisons with Russiaís fight against the Nazis. But he has made Russia an outlaw nation.
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