While the Olympics were taking place in Sochi, Russian president and autocrat Vladimir Putin was starting to invade Ukraine. Last Wednesday, Putin put 150,000 troops on high alert for battle near the border with Ukraine. On Saturday, the upper house of the Russian parliament (Duma), the Federation Council, unanimously approved Putin’s request to use force in Ukraine and deploy additional troops to the Crimean peninsula.
Putin claims the troops are being sent there to stabilize the socio-political situation in the country. However, many believe that Putin is deliberately stirring up unrest, in order to justify sending in the military. Masked men dressed in black carrying AK-47s have been spotted in the streets, but it’s not clear whether they are real protesters or a plant from Putin to create the appearance of a crisis.
Putin originally became Russian president as part of the new, non-communist era Russia, but has proven that he is not a real reformer, reverting to many of his KGB thug ways. Putin worked for the KGB for 16 years under communism. His grandfather was a cook for previous communist leaders Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin. Putin’s father is described as a “model communist.” Putin has said he spent the best part of his life with the KGB, which made it a difficult choice to leave the KGB when the organization turned on Soviet president and reformer Mikhail Gorbachev.
After serving as president of Russia from 2000 to 2008, Putin was term limited, ineligible to run again. Through some sneaky maneuvers - including serving as Prime Minister for awhile where he had expanded powers - he made it back into office and is now serving an even longer six-year term. The Democracy Index downgraded Russia from a hybrid regime of part democracy, part authoritarian, to a solely authoritarian regime due to Putin’s manipulated return to power.
Putin’s act of aggression is about increasing Russia’s power. Putin is fearful that neighboring countries will side with democratic Western nations against Russia. In 2008, Putin invaded the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, ostensibly to defend the pro-Russian enclave of South Ossetia from civil war, but it is believed that it was actually done to weaken the pro-Western government in Tbilisi. Many in intelligence did not see it coming, just like they did not see the Ukraine invasion coming. Michael Hayden, a former CIA director and NSA director under President George W. Bush, explains that the U.S. is taking the wrong approach by trying to make Putin a partner, when he sees us as a rival. Putin has made bold, unchecked moves such as helping Syrian President Bashar Assad stay in power during United Nations negotiations.
This most recent upheaval began when Putin bullied the recently ousted former president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, last November into joining forces with the Russian-controlled Eurasian Union instead of the Eastern Partnership Association with the European Union. Pro-EU anti-government protesters took to the streets, and were treated brutally by police. Activists seized the City Hall in Kiev, and undemocratic anti-protest laws were passed. Yanukovych was ousted in February and an interim government set up by the dissidents, with elections scheduled for May. Russians took to the streets in violent protests over the new government, and forced the opposition movement out of the government buildings in Kharkiv. One young man posted a photo on Instagram of himself replacing the Ukrainian flag with the Russian flag on top of Kharkiv’s regional government building. Russian soldiers took over the Ukrainian coast guard base in Balaklava and took control of two airports in Crimea.
Russia’s ties to Crimea are substantial. Crimea was originally part of Russia until Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine in 1954. Almost 60 percent of the residents of Crimea are Russian, 24 percent are Ukrainian and 12 percent are Muslim Tatars. In 1978, Ukraine seized jurisdiction of the city of Sevastopol, the second largest port in Ukraine. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is based in Crimea, and it uses that location to send military supplies to Syria to prop up Bashar Assad. Ukraine granted Russia permission to use the base in exchange for a 30 percent discount on Russian natural gas.
Putin is a tyrant. He is violating Ukraine’s sovereignty as well as United Nations law. While Crimea may be predominantly Russian, its people have spoken and said they do not want a Russian puppet as president. The 1994 Budapest Memorandum and the Helsinki Final Act instructs that Russia, as well as the U.S., U.K. and Northern Ireland, shall never use force nor threaten force against Ukraine except in self-defense. In the agreement, Ukraine surrendered its share of the Soviet nuclear arsenal in exchange for guarantees of security and sovereignty. Putin is also trampling on free speech. So far, 361 have been arrested in Russia for pro-Ukrainian protests, and face 15 days in jail or a fine of up to 30,000 roubles.
In response to the aggression, President Obama asked Putin to move his troops back to military bases in Crimea. He told him there would be political and economic consequences otherwise, such as suspending U.S. participation in preparatory meetings for the G-8. The Federation Council struck back, urging Putin to recall the Russian ambassador to the U.S. and declaring that Obama had directly threatened Putin and insulted the Russian people.
U.S. foreign policy has been flawed under the Obama administration. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates tellingly wrote in his new memoir about Vice President Biden, “I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”
If Ronald Reagan was in office instead of Obama, he would have forced Putin to back down using Cold War detente tactics. Instead, Obama continues to send wishy-washy messages to Putin. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Obama is being out-maneuvered on the global stage by Putin. Mitt Romney called Russia America’s “number one geopolitical foe” in March 2012, and was attacked for it by the media and the left. Obama mocked Romney, saying, “You don’t call Russia our number one enemy … unless you’re still stuck in a Cold War mind-warp.” It looks like Romney is being proven right over and over again.
Instead of just warning Putin there may be political and economic consequences, Obama should go ahead with those actions now. Putin is a veteran of the Cold War and he knows how to fight. The beginning of a new Cold War is not the time for naive, utopian amateurs.