If Viktor Yanukovych, the Russian-friendly President of Ukraine and his dentist son had been satisfied with stealing millions of dollars from the Ukrainian people instead of billions, the US-Russian confrontation over Ukraine and its autonomous province of Crimea would probably never have happened.
Such, however, was not the case. The Yanukovych kleptocracy, enforced by brutality, reached a level of obnoxiousness that it was a close call if the dear leader could find somebody to pilot a helicopter to help him escape his loving subjects before they tore him limb from limb.
With his man Viktor defeated and hiding from his people, Putin had a problem. What would be Russia’s relationship with the new, hastily-installed leadership of Ukraine and, specifically, how would the change of leadership in Kiev impact the autonomous province of Crimea?
Crimea, which has a majority Russian population, was given to Ukraine by Russia (at that time, the USSR) in 1954. It is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol.
With the port of Sevastopol, Russia has year-round access to the world’s seaways. In winter months, when other Russian ports are frozen, Russia is a severely crippled maritime power.
From Putin’s point of view, uncertainty about Russia’s access to Crimea was not acceptable. With his role as host of the Olympics over, he acted.
The nature of that action was bizarre. Troops, without identifying insignia, materialized in a very organized fashion and took effective control of Crimea. The fact that they wore no identifying insignia and that Putin denied that they were his was rendered other-worldly when it was reported that the CIA had advised lawmakers that an existing treaty between Ukraine and Russia entitled Russia to keep 25,000 troops in Crimea, and the existing troop presence was below that number.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who is probably one of the sanest people on the world stage at this moment, has developed a reasonably close personal relationship with Putin. They speak to each other in German, and she has become a useful intermediary between Putin and the West. She has observed that Putin is, at times, divorced from reality.
Steve Hadley, who was National Security Advisor for President George W. Bush, reported that Putin had firmly held views about America that were way out of line. According to Hadley, Putin was convinced that an American President could get members of the press fired as a matter of course. I’ve been following things pretty closely since Nixon, and I don’t know any President who has been able to pull that off.
On the question of basic competence, Putin’s handling of this whole matter has been poor. For instance:
1. Putin had to know that it was just a matter of time before Ukraine would fall apart under Yanukovych. He clearly failed to get out in front of the problem.
2. When Yanukovych showed up on his doorstep, Putin should have told him that he would protect him for the following price: 75% of what he had stolen from Ukraine. Then, Putin could have taken that money and used it to build relationships with the newly installed government in Kiev.
3. After making friendly overtures to the new government and announcing financial contributions would be forthcoming, he then could have announced to the new government that he was exercising his rights under the Russia-Ukraine treaty to put 25,000 troops in Crimea during the period of transition to the new government.
Instead of keeping it simple, Putin got a bit greedy and all “cloak and dagger” and put himself in a box.
That’s not competent.
Obama should have seen this coming. As soon as the demonstrations hit critical mass in Kiev, somebody should have been in his ear, saying, “Putin will not let his access to Crimea be compromised.” At that point, it would have been a matter of selecting the right channel (Angela Merkel, maybe) to assure Putin that the West fully understood Russia’s needs in Crimea and that we would be helpful with the new government in Kiev on that matter.
Lyndon Johnson stuff … come, let us reason together.
Falling behind the curve, Obama had to react to Putin’s first mover advantage. His initial response, “There will be costs,” was OK at best. It allowed John McCain and Lindsey Graham and the other banshee-birds on the Right to do their thing.
If Putin wants to come out of this confrontation with control of Ukraine, he’s delusional and will lose. Badly.
If Putin is satisfied with assured access to his Sevastopol port in Crimea, that’s no problem. He has that right by treaty. All parties should find it acceptable.
If Putin insists on de facto control of the Ukrainian province of Crimea, Obama and the West can’t deliver that. It’s not theirs.
So, if Putin is determined to have a problem, there’s one available.
I will post again on Wednesday, April 2, 2014 (or before, if the news flow dictates) and, for the time being, I will post on the first Wednesday of each month.
Comments are welcome at tomc[at]wednesdayswars[dot]com. Name and town if you wish to opine. Comments will be addressed in subsequent posts.