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White House digs deep hole in Ukraine
Barack Obama

March 14, 2014

Playing all the wrong cards in the Ukraine crisis, the White House pushed Russian President Vladimir Putin into taking desperate measures in Crimea. After months of Western-backed demonstrations trying to wrench Ukraine’s government from Russia, the West finally got what it wanted toppling Feb. 22 Ukraine’s Russian-backed government of Viktor Yanukovich. Moscow warned the West to stay out Ukraine’s internal affairs. Putin aide Sergei Glazyev warned the U.S. Feb. 6, over two weeks before the Feb. 22 revolution and one day before the start of the Sochi Winter Olympics, that if things deteriorated in Ukraine Russia would likely intervene. Putin had to bite his tongue Feb. 22 while denounced by NBC’s Winter Olmpics anchor Bob Costas denounced the Russian president on worldwide TV. Putin waited only one week after the closing ceremony to takeover Crimea.

U.S. jumped all over the Feb. 22 revolution denouncing the Russian-backed government of Yanukovich, throwing all U.S. support to the new revolutionary regime. Russian officials made it clear from the get-go that toppling a duly elected government violated international law. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry immediately threw their support to Ukraine’s new anti-Russian government. Putin’s move to put Russian-backed forces into Crimea March 1 essentially annexed the strategic peninsula, home to Russia's Black Sea fleet. “We believe that a decision to move forward by Russia to ratify that vote officially within the Duma would, in fact, be a backdoor annexation of Crimea,” Kerry told reporters after talks in London with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov exposed stark differences between the U.S. and Russian governments..

Instead to pitting the White House against Moscow, the U.S. should have tried to see the Russian position that a pro-Western coup in Ukraine was unacceptable. U.S. and European Union’s instant acceptance of Ukraine’s new revolutionary government suggests that they backed the coup. Moving troops into Crimea was Russia’s only way of protecting its interests in Ukraine before the pro-Western government applied pressure for Russia to get out. Whether one believes in Putin’s immediate tactics of not in Crimea, the U.S. and EU jumped so fast on the new government’s bandwagon they showed no regard for Moscow. “We lack a common vision of the situation, and differences remain,” said Lavrov, highlighting the one-sided view taken by Western governments, especially the White House. Russia has far greater national security interests in the Ukraine than the U.S. and EU.

When Putin moved Russian-backed forces into Crimea, he met almost universal condemnation from the West. Not one Western country acknowledged that the anti-Russia coup that sacked Yanukovich’s government was illegal, violating the sovereign rights of the duly elected Ukrainian government. Opposing Yanukovich’s decision to scrap an EU economic relief plan in favor a pact with Moscow to retire Ukraine’s massive debt prompted demonstrations that toppled the elected government. Without some U.S. or EU backing, the coup would not have happened. Whether or not the Feb. 22 coup during the Sochi Olympics was carefully orchestrated by U.S. and EU is anyone’s guess. Moscow certainly thinks so. Putin’s move to annex Crimea has been met with harsh reactions by the U.S. and EU, now threatening to hit Moscow with harsh travel restrictions and economic sanctions.

Strong Russian backing in Crimea’s 2 million people prompted Putin to move forward with a March 17 vote on independence. While Ukraine’s revolutionary leaders claim Crimea as sovereign territory, it’s whole new ballgame since the Feb. 22 revolution. Western powers refuse to see the Russian perspective, especially that former Premier Nikita’s Khrushchev’s 1954 gift of Crimea to the Ukraine as part of the Soviet Union. “If the referendum takes place, there will be some sanctions,” Kerry said. “There’ll be some response,” a far cry from Obama’s promise of “costs” to Moscow for annexing Crimea. “Our partners also realize that sanctions are counterproductive,” said Lavrov, hinting that Russia’s own travel restrictions could impact American tourists in Russia. State Department officials issued a travel warning to Americans considering Russian travel.

Calling on the U.S. Congress to give Kiev’s new revolutionary government urgent military aid, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) pushes Putin to dig in his heels. Unless the U.S. government has a vested national security interest in the Ukraine, they should let the U.N. and responsible parties work out their differences. Seizing on Crimea to restart the Cold War with Russia does nothing to advance U.S. interests in the region or abroad. Antagonizing Russia, a veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council, undermines pressing U.S. foreign policy issues of dealing with Syria, North Korea and Iran. Pitting the Russian Federation as U.S. adversary reverses years of confidence-building since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Ukraine’s new revolutionary government headed by interim President Oleksandr Turchynov and Prime Minister Arsenly Yatsenuk need to work out their problems with Moscow.

About the Author

John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.