Jumping at the opportunity to seize Crimea without firing a shot, 61-year-old Russian President Vladimir Putin proved he’s far slicker than Western leaders, taking back the strategic peninsula for Mother Russia. Given to Ukraine as a Soviet satellite in 1954 by Nikita Khrushchev, Putin retaliated at the United State and European Union for what he regards as a CIA and EU-backed coup Feb. 22 while he sat helplessly by watching the Sochi Winter Olympics. Led by former heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko, pro-EU demonstrators toppled the Russian-backed government of Viktor Yanukovich. While the U.S. and EU jumped on the bandwagon gladly seizing Ukraine from its Russian ally, Putin followed in the tradition of Russian chess master Boris Spassky, out-maneuvering President Barack Obama and other Western officials. U.S. and EU officials can only bark, whine and threaten while Putin plans fireworks for his new prize.
Crimea, a strategic peninsula off the Black Sea, is home to Russia’s warm-water fleet. Ukraine’s new revolutionary government, led by49-year-old interim President Oleksandr Turchynov and 39-year-old Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, can only huff-and-puff with Russia officially annexing Crimea. Wall Street said it best staging a furious rally when smart money realized that Putin would stop at Crimea and leave the rest of Ukraine intact for Western consumption. After slapping some feeble sanctions on Moscow, Obama and his EU allies continue to make waves but bark up the wrong tree. Instead of fighting Ukraine’s losing battles, Western officials should try to understand Russia’s move and tell Kiev to build better relations with Moscow if it hopes to one-day get back Crimea. Western officials are still blustering over Putin’s recent move but have little recourse other than threatening to retaliate, restarting the old Cold War.
Reports of pro-Russian forces storming the Belbek Air Force Base near Sevastopol raise questions of whether or not Putin intends to grab more real estate in Ukraine. Calling the annexation of Crimea a “remarkable event,” Putin hailed the development, despite protests from Washington and Brussels. Despite feckless economic and travel sanctions, Putin has been given free rein to march with impunity into Ukraine. Western officials hope Putin is sated by his latest adventure, less likely to move into other parts of Ukraine. There’s no assurance that even if Putin went further in Ukraine, Western powers would be willing to stick out their necks to defend Ukraine’s new revolutionary government. Signing a political association agreement in Brussels, Ukraine’s new government hopes one day to gain entrance into NATO. Had Ukraine been part of NATO, the alliance would have been forced to defend Ukraine’s territorial integrity against foreign invasion.
Putin backed away from tit-for-tat sanctions on U.S. officials, realizing that few U.S. officials or corporations had enoughl assets in Russian Banks. “We should keep our distance from those people that who compromise us,” said Putin, hinting Russia would avoid investments in U.S. and EU banks. Watching U.S. officials target Russia’s Rossiya Bank with over $16 billion in assets irked Putin, whose friend Yuri Kovlchuk has provided him liquidity during his time in office. Putin walks a dangerous tightrope trying to maintain some ties with the West while seizing more territory in Ukraine. When Putin seized Crimea March 1, he expected the U.S. to take a more neutral stance, much like he did when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Putin said very little while former President George W. Bush executed his preemptive war strategy, toppling the Taliban and the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein for ethereal reasons.
Needing Russia for its planned withdrawal from Afghanistan later this year, the U.S and NATO have been reluctant to push Putin too far. Whether or not Russia controls Crimea doesn’t materially change U.S. or EU national security in the region. Putin signaled that he’d refrain from more retaliatory steps as long as the U.S. and EU lighten their sanctions against Russia. Russia knows that annexing Crimea burns any bridges for the time being with Ukraine’s new pro-EU government. Ukraine’s new leaders have little regard for Ukraine’s past Russian-backed government of deposed Viktor Yanukovich. While Putin hinted that he’d reinstate Yanukovich’s power in Kiev, it now looks like the Kremlin accepts annexing Crimea as repayment for toppling Yanukovich’s Russian-backed regime. Yanukovich has little chance of returning to power. Ukraine’s new leaders need to stop antagonizing Putin before he decides to take more territory.
U.S. and EU officials showed no tolerance for Putin’s reasons for annexing Crimea in the wake of Ukraine’s anti-Russian revolution. When 42-year-old former heavyweight champion Vital Klitschko led the Feb. 22 U.S. and EU-backed revolution against Yanukovich, they didn’t anticipate what now looks like a predictable Russian response. Putin was especially irked because the coup happened while his hands were tied with the Sochi Winter Olympics. Watching NBC’s Sochi anchor Bob Costas denounce Putin during the games on global TV didn’t bode well for Ukraine’s new government. Putin errantly thought that his U.S. and EU friends would back a move the take Crimea when an anti-Moscow government came to power. Instead of pouncing on Putin, the U.S. and EU should have shown more restraint before denouncing Russia’s action. When you look at all the hostile rhetoric from Kiev, Putin’s move was entirely predictable.
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.