IMMEDIATE RELEASE 16 Apr. 2014
Today’s Events in Historical Perspective
America’s Longest-Running Column, Founded 1932
By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift
WASHINGTON – By putting 250,000 troops on the border of Ukraine, Russian President Putin is inviting Russian separatists within Ukraine to rise up, and that’s what they’re doing. When Putin then warns that Ukraine is “on the verge of civil war,” he’s basically egging on the separatists, creating a situation he can use as an excuse if he decides to enter the country militarily.
The Ukrainian government doesn’t want to take the bait and plunge in with its military, yet it can’t sit back and do nothing. After letting several deadlines for action lapse, the government on Tuesday ordered an anti-terrorism operation to unfold in slow motion, hoping to keep casualties to a minimum.
With Russian sympathizers controlling some government buildings in at least 10 eastern cities, Russian Prime Minister Medvedev wrote on his Facebook page that Ukraine is “on the verge of civil war,” words that are tantamount to an invitation to both sides to have their war.
Reports surfaced of Ukrainian troops defecting and putting Russian flags on their tanks. Putin must be enjoying the spectacle, but if things get out of hand, he may wish he had never started this confrontation with the West.
If he’d played his cards a bit more smartly, Putin could have had Crimea, plus Ukraine, and maybe even Belarus without alienating the West and risking war. Instead, his tactics are invoking comparisons to what the Germans did in 1938 under Hitler’s direction when they confiscated Sudetenland, the portion of Czechoslovakia that was German speaking.
The rest of Czechoslovakia was quickly swallowed up amidst Hitler’s assurances that he had no further territorial ambitions. He was lying of course, but Putin may be telling the truth when he disavows further territorial claims. He’s sitting pretty for the moment watching the West squirm as he taunts the Ukrainians with cross-border military incursions under the guise of protecting ethnic Russians.
Putin knows the West is not going to intervene militarily. The European Union and the U.S. are intervening with sanctions on the assumption is that once the Russian oligarchs start feeling the heat, they’ll persuade Putin to back down. The ruble has taken a big hit, and the moneyed class in Russia can’t be happy about that.
Ukraine was once known as Russia’s breadbasket, now it’s a basket case that Russia can ill afford to acquire. At best, it would be a hostile takeover; at worst, a bloody civil war.
Putin could have saved himself a lot of trouble at the outset if he had taken the plight of Crimea with its majority Russian-speaking population to various international bodies and made the case that the people should be given a vote as to which country they preferred. He could have invoked the right of self-determination as defined by Woodrow Wilson in his Fourteen Points speech about the settlement of territorial claims after World War I.
Instead Putin chose coercion over diplomacy, without ever giving diplomacy a chance. No nation is going to fight a war over Ukraine, so in that sense Putin has won. But the events of the past two months are the opening rounds in what will be a long economic struggle.
Russia is a major exporter of oil and gas, and its pipelines go through Ukraine to reach Europe. Ukraine can sabotage those pipelines, which would hurt Russia but would also hurt Europe. Putin can withhold natural gas supplies from Ukraine, or charge exorbitant prices that the bankrupt nation can’t afford. Next month, Putin is visiting China and it’s likely he will wrap up a deal that’s been 10 years in the making to export oil and gas to China, forging a relationship that has far more potential to shape geo-politics this century than any forays into Ukraine.
© 2014 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.
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