Posted on 18-03-2014
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

For the last few weeks Vladimir Putin has been mocking the intelligence of the world by denying the Russian invasion of the Crimea.  Even if the laughable interpretation that the soldiers taking over the peninsula were “local self-defense units,” the Russians had no explanation for the Russian tanks patrolling the streets.  Then this weekend came the mockery of a referendum on the fate of Crimea.  The status quo was not an option on the ballot.  Resentful Crimean Tatars boycotted the referendum.  Support for unifying with Russia which measured in the 40s somehow manifested in a Soviet style 97% majority (aided by voting miracles like the votes cast in Sevastopol exceeding the voting population).  Fresh off this mockery, Putin then proclaimed that Crimea had “always” been a part of Russia (even though it did not become a part of any Russian state till the late 18th century and the current Russian majority is the product of Stalin’s ethnic cleansing).  The mask is off and Putin has now openly annexed the Crimea.

What happens next is where the danger lies.  Russia is now pushing for the Finlandization of Ukraine – demanding it remain non-aligned and drastically federalize its constitution to meet Russian diktats.  In the last few weeks Putin has asserted the right to intervene on behalf of ethnic Russians beyond his borders – a statement that probably sends a chill down the spines of his neighbors.

Yet in the long run Putin’s embrace of the Chinese model of making friends and influencing people belies a deep weakness – the KGB thug has been unable to steer his most valuable neighbor into his embrace with carrots and now tries the stick.  This model has not worked well for China, which counts on rogue states like Pakistan and North Korea as its ally.  Burma’s junta scared by a future as a Chinese colony choose to release Aung San Suu Kyi and cautiously democratized.  ASEAN countries and Japan scared by Chinese saber rattling have run back to Uncle Sam’s embrace.

This is the future for Russia.  Even if Putin detaches parts of Eastern Ukraine, he now has an extremely resentful neighbor on his western front.  And the reward for this is Crimea – a province that relies on Ukraine for its water and electricity and is currently unreachable from Russian territory by road.  He has ensured Russian expulsion from the G8 (not that Russia belonged there to begin with) and has sent alarm bells ringing in Russia’s former Warsaw Pact prisoners and the Baltic States.  All this because for the second time in a decade Ukraine would not be ruled by Russia’s anointed leader.

Russia has the ability to cause mischief (notably in Iran and Syria) but barring miscalculations that lead to war in Ukraine, not much more.

The reaction in the United States has been typical.  The Republicans agree with President Obama’s plans in substance (other than the silly desire to put missiles in the Czech Republic) but want more effective posturing.  Mitt Romney not realizing his 15 minutes are up showed up to predictably bash the President but had no real substance to add in terms of solutions.  The Obama administration’s hands are tied by the reality that its sanctions can have limited effect on Russia.  The substance has to come from Europe, where the United Kingdom has been cheerfully accepting the wealth of Russian oligarchs and Germany is worried about the economic fallout.  The next week will be critical to see if the Russians spend their time digesting the Crimea of proceed with the dismemberment of Ukraine.

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