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March 31, 2014

The Hungry Russian Bear

Another round of talks over the weekend failed to convince Putin.

In a real life game of Risk, Russia has amassed thousands of troops along the Ukrainian border, bolstering the presence of thousands more who assisted in slicing the Crimean peninsula away from Ukraine and annexing it back to Russia. Naturally, Russian strongman Vladimir Putin insists that Crimeans want Russia there, pointing to the dubious plebiscite referendum overwhelmingly passed by a threaded barrel as evidence. He again lamented last week the demise of the Soviet Union, saying that its subjects “went to bed in one country and awoke in other ones, overnight becoming ethnic minorities in former [Soviet] republics.” So he’s only doing what the people want, he argues.

Ukrainians as a whole, however, aren’t as enamored with the prospect of further Russian aggression and justifiably fear that the bear isn’t done yet. The chair of the Ukrainian national security council, Andriy Parubiy, claimed last week that 100,000 Russian troops surround Ukraine on three sides. He warned, “We might see a huge attack on the territory of continental Ukraine and we are getting ready for it.”

Barack Obama continues to offer milquetoast rhetoric, telling us that an invasion “was not in Russia’s long-term interest” and that “it is up to Russia to act responsibly and show itself once again to be willing to abide by international norms.” But it’s not even a question whether Vladimir Putin really cares what the president says; he clearly doesn’t. After all, Putin is the charismatic leader who Obama himself admits is “willing to show a deeply held grievance about what he considers to be the loss of the Soviet Union.” Like most of the former Soviet republics, Ukraine has spent less than a quarter-century as an independent entity, and those who long for the restoration of the empire believe that experiment has gone on far too long. It’s little wonder weekend negotiations between Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart went nowhere.

So when Obama warns that “further provocations will do nothing except to further isolate Russia and diminish its place in the world” and that we can “calibrate our response on whether Russia chooses to escalate or de-escalate the situation,” Putin knows it means absolutely nothing for two reasons: First, nothing will be done beyond a few half-hearted sanctions and more tired lectures from Obama; and second, Russia is a key energy supplier to Ukraine and isn’t afraid to turn off the spigots. With a weakened American position and little prospect of European help, Ukraine is left twisting in the wind and closely watched by several other Eastern European allies who might fear they’re next for the hungry bear.

“Understand as well, this is not another Cold War that we’re entering into,” Obama says. That’s one thing in particular with which Putin seems to disagree.

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