Russian President Vladimir Putin minced no words when he signed on March 18th a treaty with Crimea to signify the absorption of that territory into Russia. Defending the referendum held Sunday in Crimea in which those voting approved the absorption overwhelmingly, Putin declared in a televised address in front of both houses of the Russian parliament and Crimea’s purported leaders: “In the hearts and minds of people, Crimea has always been and remains an inseparable part of Russia.”
Responding to President Obama’s stale incantations about international law and “consequences” if Russia does not adhere to its norms, Putin turned around and accused the United States of practicing the “law of the strong.” He said that the current central government of Ukraine in Kiev consisted of “fascists, anti-Semites, nationalists and radicals who seized power in a coup d’état backed by western patrons, and do not legitimately represent the people of Ukraine.” All from the Russian dictator who sent his shock troops throughout Crimea to ratify an engineered coup d’état in the break-away peninsula. In a veiled threat, Putin said that Russia will do what it has to do to protect the interests of ethnic Russians of Ukraine “diplomatically, through laws and other means.” (Emphasis added) As if to underline his point, a Ukrainian soldier was reportedly killed on Tuesday when a base came under attack by Russian or pro-Russian forces.
Addressing crowds after his parliament speech in Moscow’s Red Square, Putin exclaimed: “Glory to Russia.” Obama and his partners in Western Europe, after much hand-wringing and talk of severe consequences if the Crimean referendum proceeded towards annexation by Russia, decided to impose the weakest of sanctions against a few individuals who couldn’t care less. Their mockery of Obama, and by implication the United States, was palpable. Putin went so far as to joke that Russia was ready to take on NATO forces in Crimea and Ukraine at any time.
The trouble for President Obama is that Putin actually believes his grandiose talk about Russian pride and might. Putin addresses his countrymen in fiery language meant to instill hyper patriotism and explains his rationales for his actions in terms that Russians and Russian-speaking people in Crimea can understand and relate to.
Obama embraces no core principles in defense of freedom. He shies away from muscular diplomacy – peace through strength- and is actually proposing to downsize the U.S. military to its lowest level since U.S. involvement in World War II. Rather than speak to the American people in a prime time address from the Oval Office and explain clearly what he thinks is at stake for international peace and security and American interests if Russia continues its aggressive ways, he plays golf and shops at The Gap.
Putin firmly believes that the West operates on a double standard and, to some extent, he has a point. We certainly do not always practice what we preach. But in using Kosovo as an example of such a double standard, Putin displays Russian doublespeak in action as he tries to defend Russian aggression with a bogus moral equivalency argument.
NATO intervention in Kosovo followed extensive attempts over a decade to persuade Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to reverse his decision to sharply reduce the autonomy that Kosovo had enjoyed since 1974 and cease his human rights violations. This was happening against the backdrop of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia breaking up as Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence. The Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina was admitted as a member state of the United Nations on May 22, 1992 following a bloody war involving Serbian and non-Serbian factions. After Kosovo sought to go its own way and Milosevic cracked down to keep Kosovo part of Serbia, including by the commission of gross human rights violations against civilians, NATO finally intervened in March 1999 with air power.
Although Russia opposed NATO’s military intervention, it actually helped in the final resolution of the conflict. President Boris Yeltsin’s chief Balkans envoy, Viktor Chernomyrdin, along with Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari presented NATO’s demands to Milosevic in Belgrade on June 3, 1999.
When the war was over, Kosovo was not absorbed into any NATO country. It was not made a protectorate of the United States nor occupied by U.S. soldiers by virtue of a unilateral decision of the U.S. government. Although its status as an independent country or as an autonomous part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia remains disputed, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1244, placing Kosovo under transitional UN administration and authorizing a NATO-led peacekeeping force. Russia supported this resolution.
In other words, contrary to Putin’s attempt to rewrite history with his double-speak, while Russia did object to the NATO bombing campaign, it supported working through the United Nations Security Council to help resolve the Kosovo conflict. Putin is now thumbing his nose at the United Nations Security Council when it comes to Crimea, insisting on what amounts to his claim of a unilateral right for Russia to occupy and then absorb Crimea as a fait accompli. There is no moral equivalence between Kosovo and Crimea.
That said, President Obama needs to make a choice. He can put some teeth into his oft-repeated threat of consequences for Russia’s violation of international law by providing arms to Ukraine and installing sophisticated military equipment such as missile defense systems in Poland, the Czech Republic, and perhaps the Baltic states of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia as well as Western Ukraine. Alternatively, he can decide that, for the sake of more important strategic interests that would benefit from Russian cooperation in dealing with Iran, Syria, the aftermath of the war in Afghanistan and the fight against global jihad, he will work behind the scenes with Russia to contain the damage from the Ukraine crisis and move on. If Obama were to follow the latter course, he would need to nail down significant commitments from Putin with demonstrable actions to back them up – something he failed to obtain when he unilaterally decided to cancel the ballistic missile defense systems the United States was to place in NATO members Poland and the Czech Republic.
As of now, President Obama does not have an effective strategy in either direction. He is acting like a shrinking violet while Putin struts his stuff on the world stage.
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