John J. Bastiat / Nov. 29, 2018

Ukraine: Red Storm Rising ... Again

Putin's renewed aggression is a familiar pattern of his bolstering support at home.

You would think Russian President Vladimir Putin would get tired of his reputation as the world’s most powerful thug. Indeed, he’s doing everything he can to return Russia to its former Soviet “grandeur” of most-hated nation. But no, invading sovereign nations and violating international law never gets old for our bare-chested, bareback-riding “friend.”

We’ve described Putin’s abuses of international law and peace for a number of years now, including his annexation of the Crimean Peninsula (there is of course no “Crimea” or “Georgia” anymore, from a practical standpoint), extorting Ukraine and Europe with threats of cutting off gas supplies, invading major parts of Ukraine, shooting down a Boeing 777 airliner, and a host of other here’s-blood-in-your-eye moves that leave no doubt about Russia’s ill intent. As for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s “reset” button, Putin told Obama where to stick that button, then started resetting a few buttons of his own, making Obama look like the weakling he was and humiliating America in the process.

Fast-forward to today. What’s changed? Well, in one sense nothing: Russia is still as belligerent as ever — not its people, that is, but its bull-in-a-china-shop government and military. That’s evidenced by the Kremlin’s latest violation of international law, in which the Russian Navy fired on three Ukrainian naval ships in the Azov Sea, wounding six and capturing ship-and-crew. The Azov is a major trade conduit for Ukraine, which shares the shallow sea as co-territorial water with Russia under a 2003 treaty between the two nations. Russia’s blatant act of war prompted Ukraine to impose martial law on a sizable portion of its territory in anticipation of imminent conflict with Russia. But what else has changed? A lot.

For one thing, we no longer have feckless, impotent leadership atop a listing U.S. Ship of State. As if to accent the contrast, President Donald Trump stated flatly, “I don’t like [Russia’s] aggression. I don’t want that aggression at all.” He also threatened to cancel his upcoming meeting with Putin during the G20 summit in Buenos Aires. This threat may not sound like strong action at first blush, but it would lessen Putin’s esteem in the international community and further isolate him from the rest of the civilized world. The move would also put pressure on him at home, where his popularity continues to slide. Presumably, however, Trump received some assurances, because the two have set a meeting for Saturday at noon.

Update: Later Thursday, Trump canceled the meeting, saying, “Based on the fact that the ships and sailors have not been returned to Ukraine from Russia, I have decided it would be best for all parties concerned to cancel my previously scheduled meeting in Argentina with President Vladimir Putin. I look forward to a meaningful Summit again as soon as this situation is resolved!”

Nor do we have feckless U.S. leadership at the UN. Our favorite United Nations ambassador, Nikki Haley, echoed President Trump’s strong words through an even more blunt condemnation of Russia’s actions at an emergency assembly of the UN Security Council: “Sunday’s outrageous violation of sovereign Ukrainian territory is part of a pattern of Russian behavior. As President Trump has said many times, the United States would welcome a normal relationship with Russia. But outlaw actions like this one continue to make that impossible.” Ambassador Haley also noted that Russian-instigated attacks against Ukraine in recent years have left more than 100,000 Ukrainians dead.

What else has changed? Other nations have started to wake up to the fact that the U.S. is not as easily rolled as it was only a few years ago. The sea-change in this international leadership was readily apparent not only in Ambassador Haley’s unvarnished but accurate characterization of Russian aggression, but also in Trump’s rebuke to Europe for not ponying up its fair share of support for NATO. Punctuating Europe’s “skin in the game” against Russian belligerence, the president dropped this gem off the top turnbuckle: “And by the way, Europe shouldn’t like that aggression. And Germany shouldn’t like that aggression. They’re absolutely not doing enough — Germany. … Many of those countries are not doing enough toward NATO. They should be spending much more money.” Perhaps for starters they could FedEx a few hundred antiship missiles to the Ukrainian Navy, which would take care of any unlawful-boarding problems toot-sweet.

The broader danger posed by Russia’s leader is analogous to a dying star, which makes a spectacular showing — then the lights go out. In this analogy, Ukraine is simply the canary in the coal mine, signaling the impending supernova. Putin senses that his control and popularity, once very strong, are slipping — fast. In the wake of his exceedingly unpopular pension reforms earlier this year, for instance, his approval rating plummeted to its lowest point ever. In the past, when his ratings tanked he boosted them by “defending” Russia through strong military actions that demonstrated Russian primacy and strength to its people. Those people have since become inoculated to this ploy, especially in light of the widespread economic poverty affecting all but society’s wealthiest — like Putin, for instance.

Facing this growing unrest, Putin is once again showing he is willing to take any action available to him to regain his stature and to turn Russia’s sorry ship around. Desperate or not, however, unless Putin’s hostile acts are met by an effective response he will continue to stir turmoil around the planet, in vain hopes of regaining former glory.

Less than a century ago, Stalin wiped out anywhere from seven to 12 million Ukrainians through his genocidal, engineered famine — exact figures are impossible to render, owing to the sheer magnitude of the famine. But the more Putin continues to evolve into the image of his brutal predecessor, the closer those deaths will move to the forefront of Ukrainians’ minds. Meanwhile, maybe this time the U.S. will act decisively so the world does not have to relive such horrors.

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