No one should be surprised that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops to occupy key strategic assets within the Crimea. The darling of Sochi, who basked in all the attention and respectability that comes with hosting an Olympics, remained at heart a thug. That, we could live with. But this thug has a vision, a vision of a restored Russian Empire. It is a vision that has already caused the deaths of countless thousands in Georgia and South Ossetia. That vision is currently provoking chaos in Ukraine and threatening something worse then chaos.
Americans do not know much about the distant lands. Anglophiles may remember Crimea as the setting for Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” during the Battle of Balaclava in 1854. Or, we may recall that Yalta was the setting for the second meeting of the “Big Three” during World War II: At the exquisite Livadia Palace, an Italianate masterpiece built by the tsars to take advantage of the climate, Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin met in February 1945 to discuss plans for post-war Europe.
A generation of conservative critics blamed Roosevelt for “losing Poland” at Yalta. The critics misunderstood the geo-strategic reality at the time, just as some critics of President Obama will misunderstand the geo-strategic reality today. It is true that Roosevelt wanted a Russian commitment to enter the war against Japan once Germany was defeated: At this time, no one knew if the atomic bomb would work and the prospect of invading the Japanese home islands was a grim one. But, whether FDR wanted the Russians in the war against Japan or not, he had no leverage to dictate the post-war settlement in Poland. By February 1945, the Red Army had conquered most of what would become post-war Poland. The Americans and British could insist on free elections, but they could not enforce their insistence. The boots on the ground were Russian boots.
Putin clearly sees himself standing in a long line of Russian leaders who overcame many difficulties to assert Russia’s interests. One can imagine that when he thinks of Stalin, his thoughts are wistful thoughts. I am sure he nurses similar sentiments when he passes a statue of Peter the Great. Putin is determined not to be another Gorbachev or Nicholas II, presiding over military and political humiliations and the loss of empire. He is not likely to allow his country’s promises not to interfere in Ukraine, nor his other international commitments, to stand in the way.
Why should this surprise? Ukraine is closer to home than Syria where Putin has aided the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad in its war on its own people. He has pussyfooted around with the mullahs in Teheran and, unlike Ukraine, Iran is on the far side of the Caucasus Mountains. If he has been willing to work with fellow murderous thugs in more distant regions, surely he is going to work his anti-Western ways in Ukraine, so close to home and home to many pro-Russian citizens, especially in Crimea. The perceived “threat” to those pro-Russian citizens of Ukraine posed by a pro-Western government are, for Putin, akin to the “threats” faced by Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia in 1938, a pretext and a pretense for unrelated, imperial ambitions.
In this morning’s Washington Post, David Ignatius expresses the opinion that Putin has played the crisis in Ukraine badly, that the future of Russia must lay with the West, and that Russia’s true long-term interests can only be pursued within the community of peaceful, democratic nations. All that may be true, but I am not sure that such thoughts animate the thinking of Mr. Putin. He is obviously more concerned with short-term gain on his watch than long-term pain for his successors. And, like other Russian tsars and commissars before him, the prospect of thousands, even millions, of dead fellow citizens is no more traumatic a thought for him than a calculation of the helicopter gunships that might be lost in a conflict. For the greatness of Mother Russia, the lives of the peasants are a kind of modern day form of human sacrifice, less gory than what once transpired on Aztec temples but no less demonic.
There is not much the United States government can do about any of this. If Putin does not stand down, there will be economic sanctions and they will harm the people of Russia but the oligarchs will not be inconvenienced. Russia’s energy resources are less important than they were ten years ago, but the rest of Europe still relies on them and is unlikely to risk a recession in order to make a point. In the short-term, Putin holds almost all the cards. The long-term? I hope that Ignatius is right and that Putin’s saber rattling will come back to haunt him, sooner rather than later, and that a new generation of political leaders will emerge in Russia, capable of leading that country towards a better future for its people. But, as I write that sentence, mindful of what happens to Putin’s political opponents, I feel a little like Miss Kansas at a beauty pageant, telling the judges that what I most want is world peace. This is not a time for feel-good thoughts. It is time to think of ways, mostly small ways, that we can undermine Putin’s ability to govern his country and undermine his neighbors. That is all we can do. It will not be enough to calm the crisis in Ukraine, but it is heart-warming to think that, in the twinkling of an eye, Putin will go from bring the darling of Sochi to being an international pariah. I just wish it had not taken this long to recognize him for what he is.