President Barack Obama lectured 61-year-old Russian President Vladimir Putin about the legality of taking over the Crimean region of Ukraine. Insisting that the Russian Federation violated international law compromising the territorial integrity of Ukraine, Putin countered that the Feb. 22 revolution that toppled duly elected Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich was equally illegal. Obama insists that Putin recognize Ukraine’s new revolutionary government led by 49-year-old Oleksandr Turchynov as the legal state. Staging a 65,000 rally in Moscow’s Red Square to back Crimea’s entrance into the Russian Federation, Russians overwhelmingly backed Putin’s move to annex Crimea. Obama insists that Crimea’s call for a March 16 referendum to cede from Ukraine and join the Russian Federations is illegal, saying nothing of the Feb. 22 revolution that toppled Yanukovich.
Putin wants Crimean residents to decide their own fate, something unheard of in any federal state. If a referendum were held to cede from the union in certain parts of the Deep South or possibly Texas it might also pass. Disgruntled residents of any area might agree with some petition for autonomy. That doesn’t mean that federal authorities would go along with the idea. On the other hand, the angry mob that toppled Yanukovich Feb. 22 also acted without any authority and shouldn’t be accepted by foreign governments or Ukrainian residents. “If the decision is made, the [Crimea] will become an absolutely equal subject of the Russian Federation,” said Valentia Mtvienko, speaker or Russia’s Upper House, welcoming Crimea into the Russian Federation. Russian-speaking groups in Crimea and other eastern Ukrainian provinces also don’t recognize Kiev’s new revolutionary government.
No one knows for sure who backed the Feb. 22 revolution that drove Yanukovich from Kiev. Inside the Kremlin, Russian officials believe the revolution was funded, armed and backed by the U.S. and European Union intelligence. “I am positively impressed with the authorities’ determination, sense of responsibility and commitment to an agenda of economic reform and transparency,” said IMF’s European Department director Reza Moghnadam, readily accepting Ukraine’s new government. “The IMF stands ready to help the people of Ukraine,” begging the question of whether it’s OK for a revolutionary government to claim legitimacy. No matter how “responsible and committed to economic reform,” Putin rejects Ukraine’s revolution that ejected Russian-backed Yanukovich from power. Russian authorities plan to move forward with a March 16 autonomy referendum.
Slapping Russia with travel restrictions won’t change the situation on the ground in Crimea. Ukraine’s new revolutionary government is in no position to challenge 15,000 Russian forces in unmarked uniforms now occupying Crimea. Watching the Ukrainian revolution Feb. 22, Putin could do nothing other than bite his tongue while finishing up the Sochi Winter Olympics. Once the Games ended Feb. 23, it only took a week for Putin to regroup, seizing Crimea March 1. U.S. and EU powers can only try to build consensus and summons common sanctions to help induce Putin to change his mind. Slapping sanctions on Russia carries certain risks for the EU that currently purchases about 32% of oil and 38% of natural gas imports from Russia’s Gasprom oil monopoly. Threatening Moscow with sanctions could choke off Europe from needed petroleum and natural gas.
Talking tough now, it won’t take long for cracks to appear in the EU’s attempt to force Putin to give back Crimea to Ukraine. “If someone thinks that they can scare us with such horror stories, then they are deeply mistaken,” said Russian EU ambassador Vladimir Chizhov. If Crimea votes to join the Russian Federation and if the U.S. and EU sanctions have no impact on Moscow, Crimea would be the first former Soviet satellite to rejoin Russia since 1991. Putin annexed Russian-provinces of Georgia’s South Ossetia and Abkasia in 2008, occupying about 20% of Georgian territory. Georgia’s 45-year-old U.S.-friendly and educated President Mikheil Saakashvili begged the U.S. and EU to take a strong stand on the Ukraine after letting Putin seize parts of Georgia in 2008. So far, there’s no inkling of support from the U.S. or EU to engage the Russian military, now or in the future
Lecturing Putin about the legality of seizing Crimea, Obama walks a tightrope with U.S. military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last 13 years. While there’s plenty of excuses to go around, Putin’s move in Crimea makes more sense for Russian national security than the U.S. occupying Iraq or Afghanistan. Putin pointed out in a Moscow press conference that the U.S. doesn’t hesitate to execute its foreign policy when necessary. Putin’s seizure of Crimea may not go over well with the U.S., EU or Kiev’s new revolutionary government but it makes perfect geopolitical sense. Securing his Black Sea fleet, Putin didn’t wait for Ukraine’s pro-U.S. and EU government to change their mind about Russia’s military presence in Crimea. Before U.S. and EU officials go overboard on Crimea, they should look at the big picture when considering realistic consequences.
About the Author
John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.