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Putin's Crimea gambit starts to backfire

Vladimir Putin
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Turing back the clock on the age of glasnost and perestroika under former Russian Premier Mikhail Gorbachov, 61-year-old Russian President Vladimir Putin got more that he bargained for seizing Crimea from Ukraine March 1. Putin overreacted to the U.S. and European Union-backed Feb. 22 coup while watching helplessly at the Sochi Olympics. Instead of letting the cards play out, Putin grabbed the strategic Ukrainian peninsula, hoping to secure Russian military interests from threats made by Ukraine’s pro-U.S. and EU government. Putin grabbed the former Soviet satellite not knowing the global political consequences, especially worldwide condemnation in the U.N. General Assembly, voting 100-11 with 58 abstentions to oppose Russia’s annexation of the Ukraine. Putin watched helplessly Yanukovich’s Russian-backed government toppled in a coup d’etat.

Rushing into Crimea, whatever the reasons, has begun to backfire on Putin, in part due condemnation on the world stage. While it’s true that Moscow enjoys backing from certain allies like Cuba or China, it’s also true that it’s lost support from the European Union, a $160 billion customer of the Russian Federation. Stationing some 80,000 troops along the Ukrainian border has raised the eyebrows of many former Soviet satellites now fearful that Putin might try to gobble up their territories. Leaders in the Baltic States, Poland and now independent Caucasus region also expressed concerns about Russian troop movements. So far, the U.S. and EU have fashioned feckless sanctions against Moscow involving travel and economic restrictions. Putin has responded defensively, promising to bypass U.S. or EU-based banking practices currently using Visa and Mastercard in the Russian Federation.

Putin’s real problems stem from his imperious proclivities shunning the consensus of world opinion opposing his March 1 seizure of Crimea. While Putin has many internal reasons for the action, he has set back Russia’s attempt to normalize relations with the Free World. While Obama and EU foreign policy and security Chief Catherine Ashton are on the same page about Crimea, the EU has undeniable dependence on Russian oil and natural gas. EU officials have asked Washington to refrain from harsher sanctions for now, unless Putin encroaches on more Ukrainian territory. “You’ve seen a range of troops massing along that border under the guise of military exercises,” said Obama, asking Putin to pull back his forces. So far, Obama’s requests have been rebuffed by Putin, prompting Barack to call Russia “weak” or a “regional player” for annexing Crimea.

Most outside observers see the U.S. as the weaker of the parties in light of Putin’s recent territorial moves, something former President George W. Bush and VP Dick Cheney started in 2008. When Putin invaded Georgia Aug. 7-16, 2008, Bush didn’t say boo, let alone demand U.N. sanctions or any other consequences to Putin’s invasion of Georgia. Obama and Ashton evicted Putin from the G7, canceling plans for Putin’s G7 conference in Sochi. If Putin continues to threaten his neighbors, or, for that matter, any other former Soviet satellite, Washington will have to much more than threaten sanctions or beat the war drums. White House critic, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), agreed that there was no military option in Ukraine, requiring more potent sanctions to get Putin to back down. Stripping Russia of its veto power on the U.N.. Security Council would have far more weight.

Obama’s problems in Crimea stem from the obvious way in which the Feb. 22 revolution took place. Staging the coup while Putin’s hands were tied at the Sochi Winter Olympics didn’t sit well with the Kremlin. Too many reports of CIA involvement also didn’t help matters, prompting Putin to take more draconic steps. Instead of calling Putin names, Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry should think of more diplomatic ways to pressure Putin to change his mind. If Kerry proposed to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that the Ukraine’s new revolutionary government should offer Russian security guarantees in Crimea, it would be a step in the right direction. All the anti-Kremlin rhetoric by Ukraine’s new post-revolutionary government has forced Putin’s hand. Getting assurances from the U.S. about Russian security would go along way with Moscow.

Isolating Russia in world opinion applies the most effective pressure on Putin to consider reversing course. Voting against Russia’s moves in Crimea, the U.N. has already voiced its displeasure with Moscow’s actions. “It may be that they’ve got additional plans,” Obama told CBS Evening News while visiting the Pope Francis at the Vatican. While Putin and Lavrov laugh off the economic and travel restrictions, the fact that the U.N. voted 100-11 with 58 abstentions to disapprove of Moscow’s actions in Crimea turns back on the clock on Russia’s integration into the international community, especially Europe. If the EU opted to buy petroleum and natural gas from another source, Putin would be hard-pressed to make up lost income in China and the Indian subcontinent. Less public rhetoric from U.S. officials would go a long way in communicating with Moscow.

About the Author

John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’d editor of and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.

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