Vladimir Putin’s fait accompli in Crimea was achieved the old-fashioned way – by military occupation – and has now been “sanctioned” by an overwhelming vote in favour of joining Russia. Only Kim Yong Un did better, managing to orchestrate 100 per cent support for his leadership in North Korea. The two election results are of equal merit and validity.
Thus far, the U.S. and Western response to the Russian lunge has been strong on indignation but weak on execution. That was all too apparent at U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s despondent press conference in London on Friday. After six hours of failed talks Kerry was trying to sound conciliatory and reassuring while suggesting that the Russians still have the opportunity to change course — even as his counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, was sounding anything but. Lavrov went out of his way to say that the West and Russia have “no common vision.”
That’s a polite way of saying there is really nothing to talk about.
The top priority for the west must be a concerted commitment to assist the Ukrainians in their struggle to resist a complete takeover by Russia.
Prime Minister Harper’s decision to visit Kiev ahead of his already scheduled trip to the Netherlands and to Germany will be, for the Ukrainians, a welcome symbol of support — the first by a G7 leader — but they are in desperate need of more than symbols or fine rhetoric.
The Ukrainians are, after all, in the eye of the storm and have the most to lose — particularly if, as many suspect, Putin’s encroachment on their sovereignty will eventually extend beyond Crimea and into Eastern and Southern Ukraine.
In fact, all those who live next to Russia have very good reason to be concerned. If the West continues to wring its hands, Putin will see no reason to stop with one juicy bite.
Some self-styled Russophiles are counselling the West to be more “understanding” of Russia’s actions to re-assert its “historical sphere of influence” over Ukraine and presumably other parts of the former Soviet Union as well. They warn darkly about the risks of miscalculation in what they see as another Cuban missile crisis situation, which could bring Russia and the West to the brink of war.
But what they fail to remember is that in the 1962 missile crisis, Kennedy did not shy away from backing his words with tough action, encircling Cuba with a naval blockade as Russian ships steamed towards the island laden with their perilous cargo.
Advocating a diplomatic rather than military response is one thing. Giving any kind of legitimacy to a blatant breach of national sovereignty and international law would be quite another. The Soviet Union grabbed the lion’s shares of the spoils from World War II at Yalta (in the Crimea, no less) – a five-hour map-carving with an ailing U.S. president and a relatively powerless Winston Churchill — primarily because of the fatigue of war, certainly not because the act was sanctioned by international law. That land grab was made possible by the all-too-familiar power of the gun and military occupation.
This is no time to repeat the errors of Yalta by yielding to Putin, who clearly wants to follow in Josef Stalin’s footsteps.
By invading Crimea, Russia has violated not only the basic norms of international law and national sovereignty, but also the Budapest agreement of 1994, which it signed along with Ukraine, the U.S. and the U.K. and which confirmed the sanctity of Ukraine’s borders, including Crimea.
No amount of historical flim-flam can erase the legitimacy of that agreement. It is time for respect of the norms of international law and the terms of the Budapest agreement, not for nostalgic nostrums tainted by the blood of history.
It is also past time for all the talk about “consequences” to translate into actions — sanctions with real bite, a ratcheting up of diplomatic and financial penalties that would demonstrate convincingly to Putin that his egregious behaviour will not be respected.
Of course, sanctions can cut both ways and Putin is counting on just that. But he has few levers other than natural gas and geography at his disposal and the western powers have the capacity to weaken his blue flame bribery pitch if they put their minds to it. In fact, the United States’ burgeoning energy potential may prove in time to transform other geopolitical ‘norms’ as well.
NATO should also lay a trip wire, as Kennedy did with the naval blockade in the Cuban missile crisis, by giving Ukraine military assistance to defend itself against a Russian invasion and sending a corps of military advisors whose presence will demonstrate that the West is serious about maintaining Ukraine’s independence.
Crimea may now be lost, but the greater risk now is that Russia will use mounting ethnic unrest in the eastern part of the country (which Russia is stoking) as an excuse to march into the country. (By the same perverse logic, the U.S. could invoke its self-proclaimed Monroe doctrine as the basis for invading Canada and “rescuing” its dual nationals.)
And we should certainly not put much stock in Mr. Lavrov’s assurances on Friday that Russia has no plans to invade eastern Ukraine even as Russia builds up its security forces along the Ukraine-Russian border and stokes the fires of separatism from within.
Mr. Harper must signal tangible support to the fledgling new government in Kiev which is trying to cope with the most serious threat to global stability since 9/11. In his meeting with Chancellor Merkel, with whom Mr. Harper has a close relationship, he may also be able to inject some ardour into the appetite for sanctions by the European power that has the greatest leverage vis-à-vis Moscow.
That could also inspire more rigour from others as well, notably the United States. Since Russia rejected the offer of diplomatic consultations aimed at easing tensions, the West must either now stand up or stand down.