Katy Burns: What does Vladimir Putin care about? Not the people of Ukraine and Russia
Russian President Vladimir Putin, foreground, leaves after a nationally televised question-and-answer session in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, April 17, 2014. At left is Head of Russian Television Channel One Konstantin Ernst. President Vladimir Putin on Thursday rejected claims that Russian special forces are fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine, but recognized for the first time that the troops in unmarked uniforms who had overtaken Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula before its annexation by Moscow were Russian soldiers. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)
We were supposed to have outgrown this stuff. After all, it is the 21st century. But as many Americans celebrate Easter and Passover with their promises of rebirth and renewal – and others just celebrate marshmallow eggs and chocolate bunnies – we find our attention unwillingly riveted on a dreadful drama playing out half a planet away.
Suddenly it’s all about Ukraine. And the diminutive, KGB-trained, egomaniacal bully Vladimir Putin, who’s trying to mess with that country and, by extension, with much of the Western world.
We thought we were done with the nerve-wracking East vs. West saber-rattling! What used to be called the civilized world was supposed to begin acting actually civilized. So we could all concentrate on making money and battling third-world baddies.
No such luck. And now much of the world’s attention is focusing on Ukraine, a country that – according to a poll by three Ivy League academics in late March – only 16 percent of Americans can even find on a map.
Putin once, it was said, craved the respect if not the approval of the rest of the Western industrialized nations. Apparently that’s no longer true.
Eschewing respect, he has gone for power, transforming what was (we all hoped, at least) a fledgling democracy into a flat-out 21st rubber-stamp legislature. Potential opponents are beaten, jailed or hounded out of public life.
Protesting ordinary citizens end up in jail as well. Witness the young women of Pussy Riot.
Graft and corruption are endemic.
And an incipient free press is essentially gone, allowing the Putin government to control what the Russian people read, see and hear.
It’s in those circumstances that Putin launched an audacious move – the “liberation” and annexation of the Crimean peninsula, part of Ukraine – to be followed, perhaps, by the invasion of eastern Ukraine.
Putin’s timing was interesting. On Feb. 23, he was in a stadium in Sochi, where he’d hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics, a project that may have cost ordinary Russian taxpayers $50 billion. He basked in the fulsome praise delivered by Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, who lauded Putin’s leadership of “a new Russia . . . efficient and friendly, open to a new world.” Putin’s games, Bach proclaimed to the world, had set an example of “peace, tolerance and respect” for the world.
On Feb. 26 – just three days later – Russian tanks began to roll into neighboring Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.
So much for “peace, tolerance and respect.” Although, we should note, Putin insistently told anyone who complained that there were no Russian tanks, no Russian soldiers. And now, as I write this, well-armed and-equipped burly guys wearing unmarked battle gear are systematically and with military precision taking over government buildings in eastern Ukraine. Not Russian soldiers, though, Putin insists.
They’re just “average people,” astoundingly well-coordinated volunteers from the neighborhood.
Which no doubt anyone who has ever tried to wrangle real volunteers is finding downright hilarious.
On Thursday, Putin began referring to southeastern Ukraine as “new Russia” and asserting he had a “right” to invade Ukraine. By week’s end, a tentative agreement for all parties to step back was reached – and almost immediately started falling apart.
None of this bodes well for that country’s future.
Based on what has happened in the last three weeks, it’s possible that by today, the day the Sunday Monitor is published, Putin himself will be triumphantly rolling into Kiev in a gold-plated tank, still telling the rest of the world it must be hallucinating.
So now – as if it needed any proof – the rest of the world knows that Putin is a bald-faced liar and a bully who has, and may well deploy, a vast array of armaments. In his overweening ego-driven determination to re-create the fearsome Russia of his fantasy, he has recklessly unleashed forces which could easily slip out of his control.
It only takes a couple of hotheads with lethal weapons to start a nasty war.
The world position
Meanwhile countries in what we might call the rational world – in this case, the U.S. and Western Europe – are calibrating their response.
The first thing, the primary thing, is that there will be no NATO boots on Ukrainian land.
Engaging militarily with Russia in territory that is on Moscow’s doorstep just isn’t going to happen. Even the biggest American hawks don’t want to go there.
President Eisenhower didn’t send in the troops when Russia invaded Hungary in 1956 to quash an uprising. President Johnson didn’t intervene in 1968 when Russia and other Warsaw Pact nations invaded Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Spring.
And President Obama – who has had to engineer the withdrawal of the U.S. from two unpopular foreign wars – isn’t about to send our troops into a country in which we have no significant national interests or treaty obligations. In fact, the only ones who seem intent on military action are – predictably – those in that March poll who were least able to figure out where Ukraine even is.
Some of our hawks do want to do more, but it’s not clear, practically, what that could be, and they offer few concrete suggestions. Sen. John McCain – who over the years has developed quite a fondness for intervention in other lands – demands that we at least better arm the Ukrainians with such things as big guns, ammo and night vision goggles.
On the other hand, when the Ukrainian government did first respond to the uprisings, some of the soldiers it sent promptly stuck Russian flags on their tanks. And I suspect the American people really aren’t interested in bolstering the Russian weapon stash with U.S. supplied arms.
So we – Americans and our European allies – are opening a new front, with coordinated, gradually increasing economic sanctions.
We’re punishing the Russian economy and those who profit in it, particularly the powerful politicians and oligarchs who plunder that economy, then stash their money in western banks, send their children to European schools and enjoy the high life in extravagant London apartments. Russia is an integral part of the world economy, and it needs markets and customers. The sanctions are likely to increasingly squeeze the whole economy.
Will it work? It should, in a sane world. After all, the Russian economy is already a shambles, and Ukraine is even worse.
The awful thing about all this is that at least theoretically any war at all should be anathema to the people of both countries, which were nearly destroyed in World War II. Russia lost nearly 13 percent of its pre-war population, and more than 16 percent of Ukrainians perished. The economic damage to the two was almost incalculable.
The big, unanswerable question is: Does Vladimir Putin care? And sadly for the people of Ukraine and of Russia, it looks as if he doesn’t.
(“Monitor” columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)