According to former Georgian President Saakashvili, speaking from Ukraine as quoted in today’s WSJ, Putin knows “exactly what to do” while in Ukraine “nobody knows quite what to do here, and it’s really messy.” If Putin’s actions were governed by Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn rule, “you break it, you own it,” he might be more cautious, but as Saakashvili observes, Putin is sowing chaos on purpose in order to chop Ukraine into pieces. He seems to have taken control of the Crimean region, while claiming the high ground of simply protecting the “rights” of ethnic Russians–and, as in Georgia in 2008, issuing plenty of Russian passports to sympathetic local people. Until today the Russian troops, or perhaps Russian “Blackwater” mercenaries, denied they were doing anything out of the ordinary. As a joke on Twitter described Crimean airport passport control: “Nationality?” “Russian.” “Occupation?” “No, no, just visiting.” But today the Russian Duma and Putin have come out of their closets, though still hypocritically paying tribute to virtuousness.
If I were in Yalta, or perhaps Kharkiv, the message I would probably get from radio and TV (if the connections were still open) would be that “fascists” and “brigands” had illegitimately overthrown the Ukrainian government (probably without saying much about Yanukovych, whom I doubt the Russians will allow to give many more news conferences) and that Mother Russia stands ready to help protect their neighbors in need. No sense of irony is apparent when far-right Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whom some would call neofascist, is sent to Crimea to remind the “little Russians” of their “fraternal” ties to greater Russia. If I were in Kiev or Lviv, I would probably hear a very different story, emphasizing the heavy hand of Putin and expressing the yearning to be closer to the sparkling westerners (!) in Krakow or Bratislava. The message I get from American and western European reporting is that Putin may perhaps be doing something deplorable and dangerous, but that much remains “unconfirmed.” True as far as it goes, but the gist of the story is clear enough.
Putin no doubt thinks Nikita Krushckev was a fool in 1954 to present Crimea as a “gift” to the Ukrainian SSR (Krushckev was at least half-Ukrainian), and it looks like he has now taken the gift back, with extra interest soon to be charged. John Boehner has implied, and John McCain has said outright, that President Obama is “incredibly naive” about Putin and that whatever happens that they don’t like will be his fault, although they propose no particular actions. For his part, President Obama remarked in a recently published New Yorker interview that he doesn’t really need George Kennan anymore–he might want to rethink that one. Christine Lagarde seems in no hurry to promise bailout money to a fragile new government in Kiev until they enact austerity measures sure to cripple that very government’s legitimacy. Meanwhile, Putin has the price of gas to hold over Ukrainians. Are Western Europeans ready to impose real costs on Putin by cutting off energy purchases from Russia and themselves suffer the inconvenience and cost of finding alternatives?
Krushckev probably did not think he was giving anything of value away in 1954. Putin is redressing that mistake, and perhaps more, in 2014. In 2013 he had the luxury of the moral high ground on several issues, while this year his kinship with the Night Wolves and the Berkut is no longer hidden sub rosa. As another tweet (#Russiainvadesukraine) put it, “Visit Russia before Russia visits you.”
P.S. Frank Costigliola’s NYT op-ed on Feb. 27 goes into detail on why President Obama and U.S. policymakers should pay attention to what George Kennan had to say about Russia and the Soviet Union.
Update Monday March 3: Though NPR tells us there is “no resistance” to Russian control of Crimea, they may be missing the significance of nonviolent noncooperation, as Shaun Walker and Graham Stack of the Guardian explain in a dispatch from Crimea, where the officers at Ukraine’s naval HQ refused to go along with the recent defector Berezovsky and he snapped at them “don’t ask provocative questions,” which is a fair summary of the Putinist mindset. Wives of Ukrainian military barricaded inside bases are taking food and, along with at least one Ukrainian Orthodox bishop, providing human shields. Putin may well provoke a shooting war, but for now there is an intense propaganda battle going on. (Timothy Snyder, author of Bloodlands, has a piece at nybooks.com on the “haze of propaganda” surrounding Ukraine. For a mid-20th century view on propaganda, see George Orwell’s 1947 preface to the Ukrainian edition of Animal Farm.) Samantha Power and Vitaly Churkin presented vivid contrast at an extraordinary Security Council meeting convoked by Ukraine’s UN ambassador Saturday night. Russia tried to take the session private! Samantha Power did a public service, in my opinion, simply by expressing more of the truth of the situation than the French or the British were willing to do. Putin has probably calculated correctly that Angela Merkel and Barack Obama and David Cameron are not prepared to do anything that would change his determination to repossess Crimea; the rest of Ukraine is on the table now.