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Putin Flexes Muscle

Russian troops surrounding a Ukrainian military base.
Russian troops surrounding a Ukrainian military base.
Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Senator Lindsey Graham must fear a primary challenge from the far right. Only terror at the prospect of facing an ultra-right fire eater can explain the Republican Senator’s nonsensical remarks blaming President Obama for the Russian invasion of Crimea.

“Stop going on television and trying to threaten thugs and dictators,” Graham chided the president. “It is not your strong suit. Every time the president goes on national television and threatens Putin or anyone like Putin, everybody's eyes roll, including mine. We have a weak and indecisive president that invites aggression.”

It is easy to criticize Obama’s foreign policy. Certainly, the president appeared to vacillate in the face of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons (though his posture was undermined by the British parliament’s unwillingness to back a military option and a seeming lack of support within Congress and the public for a strong response).

As David Ignatius writes in The Washington Post, the notion that the action undertaken by Russian leader Vladimir Putin “is somehow the United States’ fault is perverse.” For several months Washington has urged the European Union to take the crisis in Ukraine more seriously. The administration has been telling its counterparts in Europe that Putin had lost patience with Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, prodding him to crack down even harder on protestors in Kiev’s Maidan Square. Those pleas apparently fell on deaf ears, perhaps because of Western Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas.

As is often the case in international crises, there are few saints in the Russian-Ukrainian standoff. The new Ukrainian government failed to do what all new governments should do: Reassure all groups in an ethnically and linguistically divided country that it would respect everyone’s rights. One of the government's first acts was to repeal a law ensuring legal status for Russian and other minority languages. The government’s action quickly raised fears among Russian speakers that Ukrainian nationalists were taking over in Kiev.

Kiev’s actions do not justify Moscow’s reactions. There was no immediate threat to ethnic and linguistic Russians living in Ukraine, and certainly not in Crimea where Russians are in a majority and where the Russian Federation has an imposing military presence.

By invading Crimea, Putin is pursuing what he sees as Russia’s near-term interests as well as satisfying historic and atavistic national urges. The Russian president defended the deposed Ukrainian leader not because Putin saw Yanukovych as a reliable ally but because his ouster provided the pretext for Russia to tighten control over Crimea, support claims to influence affairs in what Putin calls Russia’s “near abroad,” and to humiliate Ukraine for having the temerity to look toward the European Union.

Putin’s immediate strategy aligns with historic Russian interests in a secure warm-water port on the Black Sea and in asserting paternal influence over fellow Slavs, the traditional Russian support for pan-Slavism. These are goals that motivated the Tsars at least from the time of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great and changed little under the commissars. Putin may also be responding to old Russian fears of a western invasion coming across the plains of central and eastern Europe, hence his interest in spreading Russian power south and west and his concern over a potential Ukrainian entry into the European Union and, even worse from his perspective, NATO.

The Russian bear is no stranger to browbeating its neighbors. Similarly, Putin is not afraid to assert control at home by intimidating parliament, suppressing dissent, rigging elections, and cracking down on gays and others. Putin has acted the thug at home (he is, after all, a product of the KGB) and he is acting the thug abroad (the precedent for Ukraine was the 2008 invasion of Georgia).

President Obama has few options other than sanctions (which may not earn European support) and symbolic gestures like refusing to attend the upcoming G-8 meeting in Sochi. The president can show support for the new leaders in Ukraine, as well, which the administration is doing by dispatching Secretary of State John Kerry to Kiev.

The fear is that Putin will send Russian troops deeper into Ukraine, provoking either a full-scale war between neighbors or a civil war within Ukraine. President Obama must make it clear to Russia that there will be consequences for further naked aggression.

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