Saturday, March 22, 2014

A Winter of Discontent

Doesn't seem like much to talk about
It would seem we are on the brink of a renewed Cold War as both the United States and Russia have issued travel bans against well-recognized politicians and businessmen.  Both sides have scoffed at the bans, notably John McCain, who wears his ban like a "red badge of courage" for having stood up against the Soviet Union, er I mean Russia, for so many years.  However, the latest move to suspend G-8 meetings until the political situation changes is a much bolder move.

There are talks of economic sanctions.  The US has few ties with Russia, but then the sudden sell-off of over $100 billion in government bonds by Russia and China did raise some concerns.  I suppose this was in response to the hit the ruble took these past few weeks as Russia made its move to annex Crimea.

Russia has a strong emotional stake in the Crimea, and you might even say a cultural stake in the peninsula.  It has long been a popular Russian tourist destination and over the last two centuries numerous Russians have settled in the Crimea, essentially taking over the peninsula.  So, it came as little surprise that over 95% of "Crimeans" voted to secede from the Ukraine and become part of the Russian federation.  However, the Crimean Tatar community, which has a much longer relation to the peninsula, sat out the vote.

What is surprising is the brazen way in which Vladimir Putin orchestrated this move, inspiring awe by some American politicians, former Mayor Giuliani, while scorn from others, our dear Senator McCain.  No sooner does the ash settle from the protests in Kiev than Putin sends in military forces to back the breakaway "republic" of Crimea, which had stormed the local parliament, and immediately put this "independence" referendum on the table.  The West didn't even have a week to relish its political victory in Kiev before all attention turned to Simferopol.

The Russian literary legacy is steeped in references to Crimea from Tolstoy's battle pieces from Sebastopol to Chekhov's classic novella A Lady With a Dog, but go beneath the surface of all these literary evocations and one sees that Russian presence in Crimea only dates back as far as the 1850s, the time of the Crimean War.  Sure, Russia had annexed the peninsula a few decades earlier, but it wasn't until after this famous war that Russians began to settle the peninsula in mass, driving out ethnic Greek and Tatar communities.

I suppose if you wanted an American equivalent it would be Texas, which we seized from Mexico about the same time, and has recently expressed secessionist thoughts of its own, although I doubt it wants to return to Mexico.  Crimea became as heavily Russified as Texas became "Americanized," although with a distinct southern pecan flavor.

Putin striking his best John Wayne pose
Putin's brashness is not much unlike that of Rick Perry, although Putin seems the more shrewd of the two, knowing better when to pick his fights.  They've both been in power about the same length of time, but Putin has no intention of stepping down.  There is talk of doing away with the consecutive two-term limit in Russia so that Putin won't have to use Medvedev as a filler, much like George Wallace used his wife, Lurleen, in Alabama to rule the state for two decades.

The Russian president continues to use the thin guise of democratic government to impose his autocratic control over the nation.  Given the emotional chord Crimea has with most Russians, he is able to get away with it.  Even the last Soviet premier Gorbacev praised the move, and he is normally a very sharp critic of Putin.  Fact of the matter is that most Russians see all of the Ukraine as an extension of themselves, which is similarly steeped in literary references, notably Gogol's Taras Bulba.  Gogol was born in the Ukraine, but like many Ukrainians had mixed blood and swore his allegiance to Russia.

If history has taught us anything, it is best to keep Russia at arm's length, at least politically.  We don't need to ratchet the current crisis into a full blown Cold War, but at the same time it is important to send Mr. Putin a message that the US will not sit idly by while he pushes at his boundaries, "protecting" the rights of Russian minorities in other countries, especially with other ethnic Russian enclaves now contemplating similar referendums like the one we saw in the Crimea.

It is also important to differentiate between the autocratic government in Moscow and the Russian people, who are being whipped into an emotional frenzy much like George Bush was successfully able to do with Americans in the wake of 911 and carry out unjust wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

President Obama has kept a cool head, unlike his Republican adversaries and is targeting sanctions rather than lowering a wall in relations with Russia.  However, I'm sure his patience will be sorely tested in the months ahead, as he stages the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, using Russian transport corridors, which had previously been negotiated.

Meanwhile, Mackie will have to plan his trip to Yalta for some other time.


  1. Speaking of "whipped into a social frenzy", some right wing loonies are talking like Russia is about to invade Alaska and to reclaim it. As far as I'm concerned, if Crimeans were wrong to democratically vote for union with Russia, then Ukraine's action in removing a democratically elected government in Kiev is just as wrong. In either case, Obama has no business dictating to Putin what he must or must not do. It is none of our business.

    The delusional right wingers constantly bombard us with the idiotic notion that government is not the solution to problems. That, on the contrary, quoting Reagan, government IS the problem and needs to be removed from the issue. If that is the case, then government (that is, Washington DC) has no business getting involved in Russia-Ukraine-Crimea-Timbuktu-Atlantis or whatever. It is their problem, not ours.

  2. The crisis in Ukraine arose when Yanukovich chose not to sign an EU trade agreement which he had previously agreed to in principal and had taken over a year to finalize. Putin apparently offered gas discounts and debt relief to encourage the Ukrainian president not to sign that agreement.

    Many Ukrainians were looking forward to increased ties to the West, but Russia has long expressed its right of eminent domain in regard to Ukrainian affairs, since it basically sees the country as an extension of itself. This was one the reason for the protests we saw in Kiev.

    I think Obama has acted rightly in extending support and debt relief to the interim Ukrainian gov't that came to power in a co-signed agreement with Yanukovich. The scariest part about Putin's motivations is that he justifies them as "protecting" the rights of Russian minorities in other countries, when in the case there was absolutely no threat to Crimea posed by the interim government.

  3. If international sanctions are the solution then the right wingers ought to be glad these were not imposed on the USA when Bush carried out his invasions on Iraq and Afghanistan.

  4. I prefer to look at cases individually, not justify one in terms of another.

  5. Meanwhile, our own President in Exile has weighed in on the subject,

  6. Putin saw an opportunity favored by history and geography, then seized on it before anyone could mobilize any opposition. Call it sinister but it was bold and unexpected. Let's not overreact, but it does revive Russia as a force to reckon with and not to regard as predictable.

  7. Russia has always been unpredictable, but so too has been the US. Snipping off the Crimea from a beleaguered Ukraine doesn't make them a great power, it just reveals Putin as an opportunist.