Sunday, March 2, 2014

Putin Pissed at Political Cold Shoulder: Ukraine Pays !

The Valdimir Putin era in Russia, now in its 15th year, has given birth to the ongoing diplomatic challenge of reading what's going on behind the Kremlin leader's steely eyes. George W. Bush famously perceived ''something trustworthy and sympathetic'' in 2001, while former defence Secretary Robert Gates, in his memoir ''Duty", recalls seeing ''a stone-cold killer.''  The Russian President many seem to many like an unbending autocrat, but in fact Putin has never in his career shown himself to be more susceptible to Western influence than he has during the run-up to the Winter Games in Sochi.

As the Games approached, Putin granted many of the West's most pressing demands. He freed nearly all Russia's most prominent political prisoners -- environmental activists, Pussy Riot, oligarchs turned democrats and street protestors. That still left the U.S. and Europe criticizing Russia's discriminatory law against homosexual ''propaganda'' directed at minors. But Putin eased up on that too, thinking he had earned much diplomatic credit with the West for hosting Sochi and for his acts of conciliation. So far, he has received none. What he got for his efforts was the West's informal boycott of the Games and the most prominent statesman not showing up. That was a mistake!

The closing ceremony attendance by Americas delegation wasn't much better. President Obama could've sent Joe Biden but no, he sent Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul and to gay previous medal winners instead. That would've compounded further annoyance on his mind during the ceremonies in Sochi of the upheaval underway 250 miles to the west, the distance to the border between Russia and Ukraine -- where Viktor Yanukovich's government had just been toppled. As Putin sat in his guarded box in Fisht Olympic Stadium, he no doubt reflected on all the sweat and treasure he poured into these Games and who his friends are. A nice photo opt would have let him feel like he is part of the European family at the very moment he craves acceptance to most. After all his good faith gestures, he still was treated like an outcast.

So, is it no surprise that Putin's penchant for using armed force in what is beginning to look like a 21st century version of the ''Great Game.'' Ukrainian officials reported that unmarked Russian soldiers had seized two airfields in Crimea and condemned Russia for committing an act of occupation. This is the second time in six years that Putin has exerted Russian hard power to intimidate a neighbouring country. In August 2008, Putin punished and weakened the pro-Western government in Tbilisi by sending Russian armoured columns into Georgia, ostensibly to ''protect'' and ultimately to ''liberate'' the secessionist enclave of South Ossetia.

The bullying of the Georgian and Ukrainian governments reflect not just Putin's worldview, motives and methods but those that have predominated for centuries in the country he rules. This mentality went back to the czars -- and one uniquely acquisitive czarina, Catherine the Great, whose reign from 1762 to 1796 is often regarded as Russia's golden age. ''I have no way to defend my borders,'' she is reputed to have said as her armies gobbled up much of Eurasia, ''except to extend them.'' Russia was not unique in adopting the principle that the best defense is a good offense. But over the centuries, it felt itself uniquely vulnerable -- to Swedes and others from the north, Mongols from the East, Napolean and Hitler to other great powers. The more of Russia's periphery its rulers could conquer, the fewer and the further away from Moscow their enemies would be. The result was the largest territorial empire in history and the largest state on the planet today.

History tells us that the Ukraine has as special emotional grip on every Russian. The Kievan Rus, a loose assemblage of Slavic tribes in the Middle Ages, became the cradle of Russian civilization. And of all the regions in Ukraine, Crimea was the object of the most resentment and nostalgia in Russia. In 1954, Nikita Khruschev transferred Crimea from the Russian Federation to Ukraine as a gift on the 300th anniversary of Ukraine's absorption into the czarist empire. At the time, it was a symbolic gesture, since Ukraine was, like the rest of the Soviet Union, governed from Moscow. The Crimean port city of Sevastpol was home to the Soviet Baltic fleet. Odessa, Yalta, and other seaside towns were retirement communities for the Soviet military. Hence the heavy concentration of transplanted Russians, as well as Russian-speaking Ukrainians, in Crimea today.

Putin is, at a minimum, dangerously close to violating a compact signed under President Clinton, where Russia promised to respect the ''sovereignty and territorial'' integrity'' of Ukraine. So much for the spirit of the Olympic Games and its celebration of international goodwill, friendly competition and playing by the rules. Putin seems to believe that Mother Russia has the right and obligation to protect ''her children'' in what post-Soviet Russians have called ''the near-abroad.'' That is a code word for what Putin sees as Russia's
sphere of influence and a no-go zone for the NATO and the European Union. Therein lies a profound irony. Putin, like many of his countrymen, is convinced that the West, institutionalized in NATO and the EU, constitutes a strategic threat to Russia. In fact, the West and the North are the only points of the compass that do not point to danger of radical Islamics.

The Way I See It.....the number one threat to Russia's sustainability as a unified state is internal: the combination of a demographic time bomb (low birth rates among Slavs and high rates among undesirable ethnic groups), an intractable public health crisis (high smoking and alcoholism), a failure to modernize the economy, and Putin's ''vertical power'' -- a euphemism for authoritarianism --makes efficient, transparent, accountable, and democratic governance impossible.

This has now led to a final irony. One key goal of Putin's foreign policy has been to prevent Western powers for bringing about regime-change -- especially when the regime in question has ties to Moscow. Yet in the most precious part of the near-abroad there was regime-change in Keiv. It wasn't caused by Western meddling, as the Russians claim. It was caused when Yanukovich, with the evident support from Moscow, resorted to violent tactics and escalating brutality against the people-power movement. Ukrainians came together in outrage and opposition -- not just to Yanukovich but to his backer in the Kremlin.

With film director and ex-supporter Oliver Stone's comment that ''Obama is a weak and spine-less man.'' still ringing in this ears, and 2000 Russian troops invading the Crimean Ukraine, you would think President Barack Obama would have had a sense of aggressive urgency.  But no, his statement to the media was that ''the United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine.''   Charles Krauthammer, political commentator on Fox News, responded on Special Report last night saying, ''The Ukrainians and I think everybody is shocked by the weakness of Obama's statement. I find it rather staggering.''

Krauthammer thinks Obama's comment is about ''three levels removed'' from actual action. He explained: Obama said ''we will stand with the international community -- meaning we are going to negotiate with a dozen other pussy countries who will water down the statement -- in affirming that there will be costs.  What he's saying is we're not really going to do anything and we're telling the world.....with Putin all ears.''  Once again I can see Vald, the master strategist, skating rings around the feckless West.

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