Russian leader Vladimir Putin's annexation of the Crimea has instigated a chorus of indignant protests in the West. But before the politicians and the media who feed on them get too exercised up on their high horses, it would be worthwhile to take stock of the roles that the West and America in particular have had in bringing about this state of crisis and instability.
First it would be remiss not to acknowledge the deep and continuing ties between Russia and the Crimea region. Sevastopol, the current home of the Russian Black Sea fleet, was built by Catherine the Great in the 18th century. Only since Khrushchev "gave" Crimea to the Ukraine (then a member of the U.S.S.R.) in 1954 has the region been out of Russian control.
When the U.S.S.R. crumbled and Boris Yeltsin emerged as Russia's first post-Soviet leader, he embraced neo-liberal economics as exemplified by the Milton Friedman/Chicago school of Economics. Under the tutelage of American economist Jeffery Sachs, Yeltsin's economic minister Yegor Gaidar instituted drastic "shock therapy" to the Russian economy: financial supports for the Russian people were cut off, "free market" capitalists were allowed to come in and buy state owned assess for pennies on the dollar, the bulk of Russia's wealth was put on the auction block to the advantage of a small group of connected investors, bankers and mobsters. When Yeltsin crashed and burned, Vladimir Putin took up the helm and he wasn't about to share power with the newly rich oligarchs. Many of them took themselves and their assets abroad. Of those who didn't, many found themselves dead or in jail and their former enterprises now in the hands of Putin supporters.
When East Germany collapsed, German unification rattled Moscow's nerves. Then President George H W Bush assured the Soviet Union that the NATO was not interested in expanding into countries formerly under Soviet influence. But today, three former Soviet Republics and eight former Warsaw Pact countries are members of NATO. NATO has a presence in Georgia and there has been talk of bringing the Ukraine into the fold on some level as well. When America faced a remote threat of something vaguely similar, President Monroe established by fiat his arbitrary "doctrine" that declared American control of the sovereignty of other nations within our latin American "sphere of influence". While we still honor the Monroe doctrine as established international law (which it is not) we are shocked that Russia would see things through the same filter regarding their borders and neighbors.
As 2014 rolled around, Putin found himself increasingly ringed in by NATO allied or leaning countries. The Ukraine revolution had deposed a Moscow friendly kleptocrat and replaced him with a government that tried to outlaw the speaking of Russian (the primary language spoken by large numbers of Ukrainians) in the Ukraine as one of their first acts. And while the U.S. State Department's Victoria Nuland's f-bomb about the EU garnered lots of attention in the Western press, Putin would have been far more interested in her considered judgment that Arseniy Yatsenyuk would be the preferred person by the U.S. to assume power, because that is exactly who is the leading Ukraine today.
Putin has proven himself to be a thug and a bully in his own country. He is also a sharp elbowed international player who was influential and, to his mind, triumphant in defusing the Syrian chemical weapons standoff. Like American politicians, he revels in his coterie of yes sayers and confuses his visions of national exceptionalism and destiny with the facts and allows them to distort his judgment. For the West to think that they could steadily encroach on Russia's borders and its perceptions of sovereignty, power and influence without some kind of push back defies belief - except that our politicians always amaze us with their myopia and bad judgment.
Obviously, the best weapon that the West could use to punish Russia would to to initiate tough economic sanctions. This will not happen because the billions of dollars that were plundered by crony capitalists and spirited out of Russia, as well as Russian wealth still being generated, have integrated themselves into our markets. London has become the home to a large emigrant community of rich Russians who have invested their dirty money in U.K. bonds, businesses and banks, and no British politician is willing to wean the country off of that particular gravy train any time soon. America might get excited about sanctions if the the fracked gas/oil corporations can translate fear of Russia into an endorsement for the Keystone pipeline and a push for gas and oil exports, thus trying to replace Russia as the dealer for Europe's fossil fuel habit. But it would be driven by corporate profits, not tenets of international law.
Once again, a version of the great game is being played out on the world stage. And as politicians bluster and trip over their self imposed red lines and sense of self importance, it is the population of common people who will bear the brunt and scars of the political folly. Americans have our work cut for us as we must keep Washington from backing itself into a corner that leads to military engagement. We the people were largely responsible for forestalling Obama's urge to militarize our engagement with Syria, we may have to do the same in this case as well.
Dan DeWalt writes from Newfane.