When President Obama found himself trapped between a red line and the Syrian regime, Russian President Vladimir Putin rode to his rescue. Now Obama can return the favor. He along with the leaders of NATO and the European Union have the opportunity to save Putin from his imperial ambitions and, along with him, the Russian nation by making it clear that the Kremlin cannot have the Ukraine.
Russia without Ukraine is a big power and, were it ever to reform its political and economic systems, a potential great one. With the Ukraine, Russia once again would be an imperial state and on the road to disaster. Conversely, Ukraine in the West would serve as a link to Russia, providing that “come hither” effect to encourage reform in that country.
President Putin once characterized the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest tragedy of the Twentieth Century.” He clearly wants to reassert Russian domination over the nations that fled the Soviet Union in 1992. This is the world he grew up in and the regime for whom he worked as a KGB spy. In terms of his geo-strategic ambitions, Putin is more the Last Emperor than a true post-Soviet leader.
So it was no great surprise when Putin sought to entice the Ukraine, and specifically its erstwhile president, Viktor Yanukovych, away from the EU’s embrace by promising cheap loans and natural gas. It looks increasingly as though there also were a lot of personal financial incentives offered to Yanukovych.
Nor is it surprising that among Russia’s responses to Yanukovych’s ouster was the initiation of large-scale military exercises in southwestern Russia. When these maneuvers made the news I had a brief flash of deja vu. Nothing reminds one more of the “good old days” of the Cold War than Russian saber rattling and military maneuvers in response to political unrest in Eastern Europe. Add to that the most recent Russian innovations so well-practiced in Georgia and Romania of fomenting sectarian unrest within the territory of neighboring states and it could be the 1960s or 1970s again.
Except for the fact that Russia today is a weak and even declining state. The Putin regime is propped up by relatively high energy prices based largely on sales of oil and gas to Europe. Investment in the domestic economy is stagnating and the life expectancy of Russian men continues to decline. Russian military forces didn’t do particularly well against Georgia and repeated attempts at a stunt. It would be akin to Austria-Hungary’s decision to go to war with Serbia in 1914 military reform having gone nowhere. In truth, even if it had the military wherewithal to invade just the Russophile eastern half of Ukraine, which it doesn’t, the Kremlin would be mad to attempt such.
The Obama Administration has taken a sensible position with respect to recent events in Ukraine and Russia. Washington and the capitals of Western Europe need to make it clear to Putin that they are closely monitoring events in Ukraine and Russia and that any attempt to interfere with the political evolution taking place in Kiev would have untold repercussions. In addition, the West should make it clear that they are ready to provide lots of economic assistance to Ukraine once it is prepared to undertake economic reforms. If there is to be a bidding war for Ukraine, it is one the West needs to win.
Paradoxically, keeping Ukraine free could also have the effect of liberating President Putin from the strictures of his imperial ambitions. Without Ukraine, it makes no sense for Putin to try dominating the other former Soviet republics. As a result, he will have to find another rationale for Russians continuing to keep him in power such as improving the Russian economy and living conditions in his country.
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