Garry Kasparov sums it up, in a tweet posted by PJM’s Bryan Preston: “Dictators like Putin don’t ask why use power. They ask why not.”
That’s the bottom line for understanding what is happening as gunmen take over the airports and set up check points in Crimea. Reportedly these are well-armed soldiers without military insignia, but there’s little doubt that they are there in service of the Kremlin. This is an ethnic-Russian-majority region of Ukraine, a place long primed for trouble. In 1783, Catherine the Great wrested Crimea from the Turks. In 1954, during the Soviet era, the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic gave Crimea as a Potemkin fraternal gift to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. When the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, the borders suddenly mattered, and newly liberated Ukraine was in possession of Crimea, complete with the seaside resort of Yalta, the regional capital of Simferopol, and the port of Sevastopol, home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.
Twenty years ago, while working for the Wall Street Journal in Moscow, I made a trip to Crimea to look in on a volatile power play then going on there. A local politician loyal to Kiev had pushed through legislation creating the post of a Crimean presidency — hoping that if he ran for the post and won, he would acquire enough autonomy to somehow balance the conflicting pulls of Moscow and Kiev. He lost, to a pro-Russian candidate, Yuri Meshkov. Part of the local color in Simferopol during that election was Meshkov’s campaign base, the clubhouse for the local Society of Afghanistan Veterans — where pro-Russian veterans in combat fatigues sat around drinking imported American beer. The scene then was a powder keg. But it did not go off. Russia was weak, and in the early years of what was then presumed to be the New World Order, America, victor of the Cold War, was a highly credible force. Perhaps it also made a difference that not so long before, in 1991, the U.S. had led a coalition to war in order to beat back Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.
Today, there is no such cop. America is in retreat, gutting its military, swaddling its economy in projects that would have delighted Soviet central planners, and backing away from its role as leader of the free world. Putin is in the business of reassembling a Russian empire, and when the opportunity presents itself — why not?
President Obama’s statement that “there will be costs” is by now one more item in a list of ever less credible U.S. statements and warnings to the world’s opportunists. It sounds much of a piece with his response to North Korea that “rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something.” Or the statement to Iran, while “bearing witness,” that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Or the “red line” for Syria. Or “I don’t bluff” about Iran’s nuclear bomb project.
Nor does it help that Obama has yoked this latest warning to the “international community” — as in, “the United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine.” For a summary of what the international community amounts to, look to the United Nations, a feckless collective where freedom is profoundly out of style. In Libya, standing with the community — or leading from behind — sufficed to dispense with a beleaguered dictator whose people were already in open revolt. That’s a tactic unlikely to impress Putin’s Russia.
The stakes here are huge. It is not only Russia that is now exploring the limits of that question — why not? A militarizing and restive China is no doubt watching. The world is watching. If America does not lead, on terms that even Putin must take seriously, the next loaded question is, who will?