For the record, Barack Obama has gotten a number of things wrong, in my opinion. One of them, however, is not that he “allowed,” or somehow by his weakness encouraged, Vladimir Putin to invade the Crimean Peninsula. Many of the talking heads and especially the GOP old guard are putting it out that the president coulda, woulda, shoulda prevented the Russian from taking that action. That is some kind of fantasy about American power in the world.
America does have a lot of power to influence and affect events all over the globe, but it doesn’t have the power to stop everyone from doing everything we don’t like.
“If Obama hadn’t been such a wuss, Putin would never have done what he’s doing,” according to my brother the conservative. What exactly would have been unwussy enough isn’t clear to him, or to me for that matter. But it’s strikingly clear to some that the president didn’t do something that he coulda, woulda, shoulda done. And from that perspective, we find ourselves in the current crisis. Whether or not it’s really our crisis remains to be seen.
Russia’s history in the Crimea goes back more than a thousand years, back to when the Vikings used to sail up and down the huge river systems that allowed them to carry on regular trade with both the Arabs and the Greeks of the time. Those terms are pretty inclusive of all the other people who lived down around the Black Sea and Caspian Sea regions. The Greeks generally called the Norsemen Varangians. The Varangians traded with the Russians or Eastern Slavs all the way up and back.
Russians fought more than a dozen wars over four centuries on and for the Crimea — mostly against the Ottoman Turks but also against Britain and France allied with the Ottomans in the “Crimean War” of 1853-1856. That’s where the “Charge of the Light Brigade” slaughter of British cavalry occurred and Florence Nightingale became famous.
Russia, therefore has a significant, indelible and bloody history in and with the Crimea. Its only warm water port is located there and hence its large naval fleet is headquartered near Sevastopol. So it’s pretty hard to imagine that anything short of nuclear war could or would deter Putin from looking to Russia’s “national interests” as he interprets them. That the excuse to invade may be a trump job, the ruse of protecting ethnic Russians or Russian nationals, of whom there are many in the area, is apparently good enough for him. Putin doesn’t need Obama’s permission nor that of any other leader to look after his country’s “national interests,” as he interprets them.
Whether or not the U.S. could have scared Putin enough to do something else instead is a tossup. What could or would we have been able to do to get him to back down? No one really knows. There are too many moving and movable parts in this story. Threaten him just the right amount. Not too little but not too much either. Just the right amount should do it — if just the right amount could actually be determined. Would we retreat from securing something we decided is in our national interests if Putin told us not to do it? No. How about if Putin and Kim Jong Un and the premier of China told us not to do it? No and no and no. My brother didn’t disagree with that comparison.
I heard a good one recently, from back when the English Bobby (police) didn’t carry a gun. “Stop,” the officer would say. “And if you don’t, I’ll say stop again.” That pretty much sums up the issue of “preventing” the current crisis for me.
Like it or not, Ukraine and Crimea are a heck of a lot more pertinent and important to Russia than Iraq, for example, ever was to us. The president may look at it that way or maybe not. The reality may be that he, like most everyone else, just doesn’t know what to do. And we’ll have to live with the consequences.
Chris Daley is a staff writer and columnist for the Mountain Democrat. His column appears each Friday.