It took US President Barack Obama 90 minutes of intense dialogue with the Russian president to grasp that Vladimir Putin is unshakably fixed on the course he has set for Ukraine and has no intention of withdrawing the Russian troops he has positioned in the Crimean peninsula. In fact, behind the diplomatic verbiage, Putin was clearly on the offensive. He let it be understood that unless the US and Europe rid Kiev of the “fascist gangs,” which had taken over, Moscow would move forces into additional parts of Ukraine to uphold its interests and “protect the Russian citizens and compatriots living there” for as long as the interim regime remained in Kiev.
Not a shot has so far been fired in the Russian military takeover of Crimea. This could change very rapidly and deteriorate into a head-on clash between Russian and anti-Russian elements on Ukraine soil.
Putin was not impressed by Obama’s accusation of being in ”clear violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity." Neither was he deterred by the US president’s threat of “international political and diplomatic isolation” – or even a Western boycott of the G8 summer summit in Sochi.
After all, he stood alone at the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic Winter Games – unattended by a single Western leader. After that experience, he is not afraid to stand alone on Ukraine as well, regardless of US and EU efforts to force him to abandon what he views as an imminent strategic threat on Russia’s doorstep.
So the West would be more productively served by leaning hard on the group of assorted protesters who seized power in Kiev and get them to step aside, or else seek an understanding with Moscow. Military brinkmanship will get them nowhere.
The basis of an understanding already exists. It was signed and sealed on Feb. 21, the day before the pro-Western coup in Kiev, in a deal with Viktor Yanukovich, brokered by the German, French and Polish foreign ministers, for a unity government, an early election and a new constitution curbing the president’s authority.
That deal was endorsed by Moscow as well as Washington. However, as time goes and the escalation continues, that deal will fade, along with the chances of a non-violent resolution of the Ukraine conflict.
Therefore, the US-EU tactic of turning the heat on Moscow is not just an exercise in futility; it is proving to be a major strategic blunder stemming from weakness, which now threatens to promote real violence and bloodshed.
The Interim government’s security council chief Sunday, March 2 announced a general mobilization of Ukraine’s 1 million reservists after placing the army on a combat footing. This step was virtually useless in practical terms while providing Putin with further impetus to continue his military expansion. He knows that the Kiev administration is broke, so how can it feed, equip, arm and provide transport for hundreds of thousands of troops? And does anyone know how many are loyal to the new regime?
Belatedly, the interim government appealed to the West for help
This grossly uneven confrontation takes place under the critical gaze 2,000 km away in the eastern Mediterranean and 3,500 km away in the Persian Gulf of the leaders of Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Syria, and Hizballah in Lebanon.
They may be said to share four significant conclusions:
1. President Obama was seen backing off a commitment to US allies for the second time in eight months. They remember his U-turn last August on US military intervention for the removal of Syrian President Bashar Assad for using chemical weapons. They also see Washington shying off from Russia’s use of military force and therefore not a reliable partner for safeguarding their national security.
2. The Middle East governments which opted to range with Vladimir Putin – Damascus, Tehran, Hizballah and, up to an initial point, Egypt, are ending up on the strong side of the regional equation.
The pro-American camp keeps falling back.
3. American weakness on the global front has strengthened the Iranian-Syrian bloc and its ties with Hizballah.
4. Putin standing foursquare behind Iran is an insurmountable obstacle to a negotiated and acceptable comprehensive agreement with Iran – just as the international bid for a political resolution of the Syrian conflict foundered last month.
With the Ukraine crisis looming ever larger, Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s scheduled meeting Monday with President Obama at the White House is unlikely to be more than an exchange of polite platitudes.