Let me state this as simply as I can: Russia has had Crimea since 1783, and there is now and never has been a scenario under which Russia would not keep Crimea. Crimea wants to be Russian and the Russians want to keep Crimea. The task of American diplomacy was to make Putin pay–in advance–for something he was going to get anyway. Instead we acted as if Crimea was going to belong to the West, and Putin got mad and grabbed it. Now our diplomats look like idiots. Nothing to see here, folks. Keep moving.
Let’s face it: We Republican hawks have done an utterly execrable job of identifying and promoting vital American interests overseas. Our own base has turned on us and embraced Rand Paul’s isolationism. Barack Obama has done everything but hand blueprints for nuclear weapons to Iran, and the voters won’t listen to us. If Iran gets nuclear weapons, a couple of them might go off in American cities. And if Iran gets them, so will Saudi Arabia, Turkey and everyone else in the region. As Henry Kissinger points out, we came terrifying close to a nuclear exchange when the U.S. and the Soviets were the only prospective combatants, and both sides had good command and control and an interest in avoiding conflict. Create a multi-player game in the Middle East with poor command and control, Kissinger argues, and nuclear war is nearly certain.
Why can’t we persuade Americans that Obama is putting America in danger? Because they can’t hear the signal for the noise.
We keep digging ourselves in deeper. Now Sen. John McCain wants American military aid for Ukraine. This is silly: the Ukrainian military couldn’t fight Russia with a century of American reinforcement, and every officer of the rank of colonel and above previously served in the Red Army. More than half of Americans oppose even economic aid to Ukraine while three-quarters oppose military aid–and they’re right. We’re all bluster and no bucks: try to come up with an aid package that will keep Ukraine upright given the mood of the American public. (If you think the voters have contempt for the foreign policy establishment, you should hear what our friends in Asia are saying about us.)
Russia has acted brutally and violated the norms of international conduct in the Crimea, and there isn’t anything we can do about it–any more than we could do anything about South Ossetia. Russian media is reporting a nearly 98% majority for Crimean union with Russia, which means either that the vote was invented or that the Crimean Ukrainians and Tatars were too scared to turn up at the polls. The West had the chance to sponsor a constitutional referendum that would have given the peoples of the Ukraine a fair chance to decide whether they wished to become a Ukrainian people, or separate peaceably. Now we have a Russian fait accompli.
We know what comes next; we saw it in Egypt. The U.S. Congress and European parliaments will hand the matter of bailing out Ukraine to the IMF, the IMF will propose austerity measures that the hodgepodge Maidan government can’t sell, the Russians will raise gas price and collect back debts, and Ukraine will stay in chaos. Maybe Putin will pick up other pieces; maybe he won’t. Sadly, it will depend on his whim.
Putin is riding a wave of popular support at home, which also should be no surprise. Remember that Putin threw his Serb allies under the bus during the wag-the-dog war of 1998 when NATO backed the secession of Kosovo. We lied about Serbian genocide then, just as Putin is lying about fascist threats to Russian nationals today. Call it the soft bigotry of low expectations, but I don’t expect the truth from Moscow–I do expect it from Washington. Putin stood back on Kosovo precisely in order to let NATO set a precedent for the secession of provinces with large ethnic minorities. It doesn’t matter what we think. From the Russian way of looking at things, the takeover of Crimea was justified.