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The Ukraine Crisis Calls for Less Neocon Bluster, More Common Sense

It is time to reduce tensions and create possibility with Russia, not flex rhetorical muscles and fan the flames of folly.

The escalating crisis in Ukraine has set off reckless missile-rattling and muscle-flexing in this country. My Post colleague Charles Krauthammer  sees this as a Cold War faceoff, calling for the United States to ante up $15 billion for Ukraine and send a flotilla to the Black Sea. A front-page headline in The Post on Sunday said that  the crisis “tests Obama’s focus on diplomacy over force,” quoting Andrew C. Kuchins of the Center for Strategic and International Studies decrying President Obama for “taking the stick option off the table.” Right-wing and Republican posturing fills the airwaves.

The Obama administration has responded to the crisis by flexing its own rhetorical muscle. When Vladi­mir Putin ignored Obama’s warning that  “there will be costs” if he sent troops into Crimea,  Secretary of State John Kerry denounced the “brazen act of aggression,”vowing that “Russia is going to lose [and] the Russian people are going to lose,” suggesting “asset freezes [and] isolation with respect to trade [and] investment” while promising economic assistance of a “major sort” for whatever government emerges in Kiev. Cooler heads such as  Reagan’s ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack Matlock described Obama’s warnings to Putin as “ill-advised” and argued that “whatever slim hope that Moscow might avoid overt military intervention in Ukraine disappeared when Obama in effect threw down a gauntlet and challenged him. This was not just a mistake of political judgment — it was a failure to understand human psychology — unless, of course, he actually wanted a Russian intervention, which is hard for me to believe.”

Let’s all take a deep breath before we commit our limited treasure and prestige to an unknown and still unsettled leadership in a country on Russia’s border, harbor to its fleet, that has had a fragile independent existence for barely 20 years.

That said, Russia’s dispatch of military forces to Crimea is a clear violation of international law, as the Obama administration has stated. Putin justifies the invasion as necessary to protect Russian citizens and allies, but this is an unacceptable fig leaf. The administration is right to condemn it, as should the world community, although much of the world will grimace at the irony of Kerry denouncing the invasion of a sovereign country as unacceptable in the 21st century when the United States is only now winding down its “war of choice” in Iraq.

Some history would also serve us well if we’re to understand fast-moving developments. The United States is reaping the bitter fruit of a deeply flawed post-Cold War settlement that looks more like Versailles than it does Bretton Woods, and that settlement was made even worse by the United States’ violation of the settlement by deciding to enlarge NATO and pursue other triumphalist policies aimed at isolating Russia and ignoring Russian interests.

Fugitive Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych was an unpopular, corrupt, compromised but democratically elected leader of Ukraine. He was leading the country towards membership in the European Union when, confronted by Russia’s substantial financial blandishments, he reversed course. That led to street demonstrations, spurred in part by the European Union and the United States, and eventually to the rebellion that sent him packing.

The nature of the new government is far from clear. Ukraine itself is deeply divided. As David C. Speedie, director of U.S. Global Engagement at the Carnegie Council of Ethics in International Affairs, says,  “In simple terms, half of the people in Ukraine look to Russia, and the other half look to the West.” The new leaders in Kiev include ultra-nationalists who, in one of their first acts, voted to repeal the 2012 law allowing Russian and other minority languages to be used locally. (Not surprisingly, these new leaders are very unpopular in semi-autonomous Crimea, which is populated largely by Russian-speaking people, and in many parts of eastern and southern Ukraine.) It is also worth noting that a key ally of the new government, holding central leadership positions in the parliament and law enforcement, is  the Svoboda party, which the European Parliament has condemned for its “racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic views.”

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