German Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly told President Barack Obama on Sunday that Vladimir Putin was out of touch with reality. When it comes to Ukraine, however, it’s not just Putin who seems to be operating in a parallel universe. In Washington, this crisis is causing politicians from both parties to lose their grip.
I don’t just mean Republican hawks, who see an opportunity to bash Obama for foreign policy weakness. Or presidential hopeful Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who opposed authorizing force in Syria and now claims Russia’s use of force in Crimea threatens to reverse “the hard-fought gains of the Cold War.”
Democrats, too, have joined the chorus. Hillary Clinton, another 2016 contender, has compared Putin’s aggression in Crimea to Adolf Hitler’s World War II advance into Czechoslovakia to “save” the Germans in the Sudetenland. On the pundit side, Adm. James Stavridis, a former NATO commander, has called for the military alliance to send forces into the Black Sea area and ready them for action.
Folks, although the Ukraine situation may show some similarities, this is not Cold War redux, nor does Putin, for all his thuggery, remotely resemble Hitler (or Stalin). Unless politicians on both sides of the aisle take a more coolheaded approach to the realities in Ukraine, and in Russia, they will make the situation worse.
Putin’s dreams of restoring Russia to superpower status are fantasy. Russia has become a middling power, with a declining population and a stagnant economy that has failed, under Putin, to modernize. Despite its educated population, its economy depends on high prices for gas and oil.
As more U.S. shale gas and oil come on line, and as more energy sources expand worldwide, Russia will be in trouble. Its economic future depends on more integration with the West, not less.
Yes, Putin still has nukes and a large military, but he isn’t readying his troops to march through the Fulda Gap. Moscow and Washington don’t have missiles pointed at each other, or any deep ideological conflict (although it may sound like it).
Putin can only afford to threaten his weakest neighbors – like Ukraine, Georgia, or perhaps Moldova – that he believes should be part of the Russian orbit. The Baltic nations, along with Central and Eastern European countries that were once part of the Warsaw Pact, are now part of NATO, which rules out any Russian invasion, however unlikely.
So Putin’s violation of Ukrainian sovereignty should be condemned, and a strong Western response is warranted, but this crisis should not be treated as a precursor of World War III.
Rather, the immediate goal should be to prevent Putin from sending troops into eastern Ukraine, an area inhabited by many ethnic Russians. Putin indicated in a news conference Tuesday that he may already have gotten that message.
Sanctions targeted at key Russian individuals and businesses involved with corrupt behavior in Ukraine would reinforce the message, while the Obama administration tries to persuade European leaders, especially Merkel, to consider tougher sanctions on the Russian economy.
Again, realism is called for: Until the Europeans become less dependent on Russian energy resources, they will be wary of taking too hard a stance against Putin. But Putin’s Ukraine adventure may start changing European minds.
And despite Putin’s public disdain of sanctions, the Russian business community (and targeted billionaire businessmen) will surely take notice. Expelling Russia from the G-8 group of major industrial nations would make the message even clearer.
A realistic approach would recognize that it may not be possible to evict the Russian troops that Putin just dispatched to Crimea, an autonomous part of Ukraine with a majority population of ethnic Russians. Russia has a treaty with Ukraine that will permit it to keep naval bases in Crimea for the next 28 years, and has long historic ties to the region.
Recall that during the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia, on George W. Bush’s watch, Putin sent troops to autonomous areas within that country that still remain there. It is possible the same will happen in Ukraine.
This makes it all the more important that Washington and the European Union beef up the government and economy of the rest of Ukraine, a country that has failed miserably to develop since it became independent in 1991. Finally, realism dictates that Putin’s invasion of Crimea put an end to illusions in the White House and Europe about a “partnership” with the Russian leader. Cooperation with Putin may be possible where he deems it in Moscow’s interests – but that won’t be often.
This doesn’t mean another Cold War. Indeed, Putin may be the biggest loser if he isolates himself from prosperous Western nations. If he rejects reality, however, the West shouldn’t follow his lead.
Trudy Rubin can be reached at email@example.com.