How the U.S. Should NOT Resolve the Ukrainian Crisis!
Perhaps in a mockery of former President George W. Bush’s now-infamous assessment of what he saw in Vladimir V. Putin’s eyes, Senator and then-presidential hopeful John McCain had this to say in a 2007 speech before the Republican Jewish Coalition: “I looked into Mr. Putin’s eyes and I saw three things––a K and a G and a B.”
Then, McCain in June 2013, shortly after reports came of NSA leaker Edward Snowden’s absconder to Russia: “[Putin’s] an old KGB colonel apparatchik that dreams of the days of the Russian empire…”
And now, as the turmoil in Ukraine continues to unfold, McCain on Putin, take three: “[Putin] was a KGB colonel who always had ambitions to restore the Russian empire. That’s what this [the annexation of Crimea] is all about.”
Obviously the senior Republican from Arizona has never been an admirer of Putin. But the rest of the United States, long resigned to Putin’s intractability, has also begun to join McCain in protest against the ‘Grey Cardinal’. In 2011, roughly 50 percent of Americans favored Putin’s Russia. Today, Gallup claims that at least six in ten Americans disapprove of the Russian Federation.
America’s political pundits have likewise attuned themselves to the shifting tide of public opinion. Last month, New York Times columnist David Brooks penned a satirical ‘diary entry’ in which, writing from the perspective of Putin, he seemed to concur with McCain’s unflattering estimation of the Russian leader’s motives. Brooks, assuming the role of Russia’s president: “My entire worldview is based on the idea that societies exist in one of two states: centralized control or terrorism and chaos. My life project has been to impose top-down order so Russia can return to its former grandeur.”
Just today, President Obama unveiled an array of economic sanctions against Russia. The new measures, by prohibiting any American businesses and/or individuals from dealing with a number of Russian banks, the first of which (Bank Rossiya) caters to an exclusive clientele of oligarchs and other Putin associates, hit Russia’s president close to home.
Perhaps too close to home. For however conniving and undemocratic a leader Putin is––and however spurious is his justification for Russia’s annexation of Crimea––the U.S. should reconsider before it throws caution to the wind and decides that it will have no further dealings with Russia, or that it wants Putin replaced with someone more malleable.
The Ukrainian crisis must not be the cause of a near-total breakdown in relations between the U.S. and Russia. Given Washington’s vastly diminished influence in the international community, emphasized by its indecision last summer over how best to contain Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons, the U.S. cannot afford for Russia––which so happened to rescue the Obama administration from that particular morass with an eleventh hour proposal to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons program by mid-2014––to be ostracized from the rest of the world. Russia––which holds cardinal positions in leading international organizations like the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, and the G-8, and therefore is exceedingly influential in international politics––simply is too big to blacklist.
As for replacing Putin, Russia’s longstanding president may very well be all that prevents the region from devolving into chaos. According to U.S. embassy cables released by Wikileaks in 2010, the Kremlin and its raft of corrupt oligarchs, who made it big after perestroika and glasnost tore apart the fabric of Soviet society, have such close ties to organized crime that Russia is a “virtual ‘mafia state’.” Let’s take this speculation a step further. Suppose that Putin, who cultivated his political career in the shadowy underbelly of St. Petersburg, is one of the in-crowd, a mobster disguised as a lawmaker––someone who, unlike the professorial Dmitry Medvedev, is familiar with and more than capable of safely and successfully navigating Russia’s wide-ranging underworld. And suppose, moreover, that without Putin to keep Russia’s organized criminals in check, Russia will splinter into countless fiefdoms, each controlled by a crime lord. Such a prospect is terrifying, given that Russia possesses a nuclear arsenal that is by far the second-largest in the world.
In light of this, to unduly weaken Putin for the sake of winning a diplomatic skirmish over Ukraine might not be in the U.S.’s best interests. After all, by implementing targeted economic sanctions against Putin’s political allies and financial backers––who, upon suffering crippling economic losses, could conceivably have second thoughts about their president––the U.S. could be inadvertently paving the way for a weak successor who, while appeasing the West with honeyed words, relinquishes more power to the Russian mafia.
At this point, the White House should continue to engage the Kremlin in backchannel negotiations and hope for the best. Targeting Putin, as Obama seems to have attempted with his latest round of sanctions, may simply open a can of worms better left sealed.
Copyright © 2014 Elliot Silverberg. All rights reserved.
Posted on March 22, 2014, in Articles and tagged Barack Obama, Crimea, George W. Bush, John McCain, Politics, Russia, Soviet Union, Ukraine, United States, Vladimir Putin. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.