President Putin today finally addressed some of the issues Russian behavior in Ukraine has raised. I can find neither video nor transcript so far,* so I am relying on the RT account, which is ample but certainly not complete.
Putin’s main point is that Russia has the right to protect ethnic Russians in Ukraine’s east:
If we see this lawlessness starting in eastern regions, if the people ask us for help – in addition to a plea from a legitimate president, which we already have – then we reserve the right to use all the means we possess to protect those citizens. And we consider it quite legitimate.
Putin makes clear his distaste for deposed Ukrainian President Yanukovich and shows no inclination to restore him to power, but at the same time he thinks his removal was not legitimate:
I strictly object to this form [of transition of power] in Ukraine, and anywhere in the post-Soviet space. This does not help nurturing a culture of law. If someone is allowed to act this way, then everyone is allowed to. And this means chaos. That’s the worst thing that can happen to a country with an unstable economy and an unestablished political system.
So what we’ve got here is a claim to legitimacy based on protection of ethnic Russians and rejection of the overthrow of an elected president. Putin would have us believe that he is at least as justified as the United States was in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.
But his justification and Russian behavior bear little resemblance to those cases of intervention, all of which can be challenged but none of which threatened to divide a neighboring country along ethnic lines. According to the RT account, Putin does not mention Ukrainian sovereignty or Russian troop deployments in Crimea. He is focused mainly on what happened in Kiev. He even offers a remedy:
Frankly, they should adopt a new constitution through a referendum so that all citizens of Ukraine feel engagement in that process, have an input on the formation of the new principles of how their nation should function….That’s certainly not for us, but for the Ukrainians and the Ukrainian authorities to decide this way or another. I believe after legitimate government is formed, after a new president elected, after a new parliament is elected, they should return to this.
This is potentially interesting, as it offers a political route out of the crisis, but no one should imagine this constitutional process occurring without Russia exerting its maximum influence, including by arming what he terms “self-defense” forces in Russian-speaking areas. Ukraine is going to have a very hard time managing a transition to a government in Kiev that the Russians will accept as legitimate.
Meanwhile the American commentariat is still devising the ways and means to respond to Russia’s taking control of Crimea and threatening other Russian-majority portions of Ukraine. Stephen Hadley and Damon Wilson in the Washington Post this morning urge recommitment to NATO and to a Europe whole and free, including by admitting Montenegro to membership in the Alliance and offering a “membership action plan” to Georgia. Montenegro is a no-brainer, as it has qualified and represents zero additional burden to the Alliance while offering it a modest additional force for deployment outside the Balkans, as well as geographic contiguity by filling the gap between NATO members Croatia and Albania.
Georgia is an entirely different question. Advocates pay zero attention to the challenge of protecting it from Russia, apparently convinced that fairy dust will do the trick. But NATO has no means of protecting Georgia, which shares a border with Russia, from invasion. Russia already controls two Russian-speaking areas within the small country: South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both of which have declared independence. It is simply foolish for the Alliance, already hard-pressed to make its defense of the Baltics credible, to take on an additional burden it cannot possibly meet.
The sad fact is that the goal of “Europe whole and free,” shared by all American administrations since the fall of the Berlin wall, always depended on Russian concurrence, if not active cooperation. Putin has made it absolutely clear he does not concur. The smart reaction on the part of the West is to consolidate its very considerable gains and wait patiently for a Russia that will be a more willing partner, while doing everything possible to prevent Russia from dividing Ukraine. This does not necessarily mean a new Cold War. Our ideological quarrel with Putin’s Russia doesn’t come close to the one we had with the Soviet Union. But Putin’s aggressiveness does mean conserving Alliance strength and reacting with restraint, prudence and careful attention to top priorities.
Ukraine is one of those. We are going to have our hands full responding effectively to Russia’s behavior in there. Steve and Damon suggest we
threaten to deny Russia access to the U.S. and European Union banking systems as the ultimate sanction.
That is something Putin might listen to, but Angela Merkel and David Cameron are not yet willing to say.
* I still haven’t got a transcript in English, but here is The New Republic’s account:
Today’s Putin was nervous, angry, cornered, and paranoid, periodically illuminated by flashes of his own righteousness. Here was an authoritarian dancing uncomfortably in his new dictator shoes, squirming in his throne.