Warning Russian President Vladimir Putin to stay out the Ukraine, President Barack Obama spoke of unspecified “costs” to the Russian Federation if they violate Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty. At stake is the heavily Russian Black Sea area known as Crimea, where reports of Russian paramilitary forces seizing Ukrainian government buildings have spread over the Internet. “We are deeply concerned by report of military movements taken by the Russian Federation inside of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” said Obama, in what amounts to a toothless plea to Putin. Deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, now under Kremlin protection, insisted he was still the rightful leader of the Ukraine. Putin and Yanukovich blame the U.S. and European Union for backing the pro-EU coup that drove him from power. Neither Putin nor Yanukovich give two-hoots about Obama’s or the U.N.’s warnings about violating the Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
Putin views the situation in the Ukraine as a U.S.-backed coup, signaling a return to the Cold War-style cat-and-mouse game that left the U.S. and Russia in competition for world dominance. After the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia reluctantly permitted its former satellites to go independent. Cutting ties with Russia hasn’t been easy for many of the former Soviet republics where the territories were sustained on Russian aid. Calling Russian troop movements in Crimea “deeply destabilizing” and “profound interference,” Obama antagonizes an already delicate situation. Putin doesn’t like Obama’s lectures about “territorial integrity,” when the prevailing view in Russian and the Ukraine believes that the U.S. fomented the coup. Putin isn’t worried about condemnation from the U.S. or its allies. He’s more concerned with protecting Russian interests in the Ukraine, especially his navy and air force bases in Crimea.
Whatever Putin thinks of Yanukovich, Russia has its own interests in the Black Sea. Watching a U.S.-friendly government established in the Ukraine—like it did with Mikheil Saaksashvili in Georgia—threatens Russian military dominance in the region. Just like the Truman Doctrine, named after the U.S. post-WW II foreign policy that held the line against Soviet expansionism—Putin sees U.S. encroachment into the Ukraine conflicting with Russian foreign policy. No matter how many times Putin refers to the U.S. as his “American partner,” Obama’s has one of the most antagonistic foreign policies against Russia since the Cold War. Warning Putin about unspecified “costs” only makes matters worse because the Russian perspective holds the U.S. responsible for the Ukrainian coup. When Oblama talks of “costs,” he’s not referring to any possible military response, only a toothless condemnation by the EU and possibly Great Britain.
When Yanukovich fled Kiev Feb. 22 to save himself from an angry mob, U.S. and EU-backed coup succeeded in driving him from power. Whether or not the 64-year-old Ukrainian strongman was corrupt, he was deposed by a U.S. and EU-backed coup. No matter how you cut it, that doesn’t sit well with the Kremlin. After hosting the Sochi Winter Olympics, Putin watched helplessly as former Heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko led a pro-EU revolt that toppled Yanukovich’s government. Hearing Obama or Secretary of State John Kerry make idle threats only pushes Putin to take action. Putin needs assurance that Ukraine’s Russian enclaves and military bases would be protected in any post-Yanukovich regime. Facing flack from pro-U.S. or EU nation is nothing new for Putin, marching to the beat of the Kremlin no matter what. Whether Putin likes Yanukovich or not, he still calls for a restoration or the duly elected pro-Moscow government.
Putin wants to see a return to “normalcy” in the Ukraine, reinstating either Yahukovich or another pro-Russian ruler. Reports of Russian troops seizing Crimea’s airstrips and government buildings doesn’t reassure the West that the Ukraine has returned to business as usual. Given the Russian military moving into Crimea, it’s doubtful that Putin will pullout anytime soon. When he crossed into Georgia in the South Ossetia War in 2008, Putin faced the same U.S. and EU condemnation. Putin knows the West did nothing to force Russian troops out of Georgia. Despite Obama’s warnings, there’s little the U.S. or EU can do to get Russian Federation troops out of Crimea. “I intend to continue to struggle for the future of Ukraine, against terror and fear,” said Yanukovich, knowing full-well he won’t return to Kiev. Whether Putin wants to return him to power or not, the Ukrainian opposition would protest too loudly to ever allow it to happen again.
Threatening Putin with unintended consequences of seizing control of Crimea only makes matters worse. “What’s going on is lawlessness, lack of authority, and terror. Decisions in parliament were taken under duress,” said Yanukovich, promising to return to the Ukraine once his security can be guaranteed. Putin wants to return to the peace agreement between Yanukovich and the EU before the Sochi Winter Olympics. With Russian forces in Crimea, it’s doubtful they would surrender Crimea back to Ukrainian opposition forces. Calling Russian control of Crimea “an absolutely natural reaction to the bandit coup that occurred in Keiv,” Yanukovich insisted Russian showed great restraint in Crimea. U.S. and EU officials have no means of evicting Russia form Crimea, short of military action. Protecting Russian interests in Crimea takes precedence over cutting deals with EU or, somewhere down the road, restoring favorable ties with the U.S
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.