Putin Squanders Olympic Glow to Seize Crimea

Russian President Vladimir Putin has thrown away the halo of global good feeling that might have come with the success of the Sochi Olympic Games. Russia’s hosting of the Games was marred when armed paramilitary extremists linked to Putin publicly whipped members of the punk rock protest band Pussy Riot, but Putin’s government handled that situation by scolding the responsible Cossacks and denouncing such abuse of citizens.

The popular overthrow of the pro-Putin regime in Ukraine, with calls for the prosecution of fugitive former President Viktor Yanukovich, has now led to Putin squandering any progress he might have made in recuperating his image and his nation’s image in the eyes of world opinion. Over the last few days, Putin’s military has moved into Crimea, in an apparent effort to seize control of the strategically important Black Sea peninsula.

Pres. Barack Obama has issued a firm statement denouncing Putin’s military invasion of the sovereign nation of Ukraine, suggesting that any failure to remove Russian military forces from Crimea could lead to a US boycott of the coming Russian-hosted G8 talks. A return to the G7 model, or a sometime G7+1 model, could isolate Putin and have the effect of diminishing Russia’s economic and political clout in the region, even as he seeks to advance it militarily.

As tensions regarding Russia’s influence in Ukraine have escalated, there have been high-level efforts to negotiate a truce with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, has been suggested as a peace talks leader, but Merkel says after a personal conversation by phone with Vladimir Putin, she has serious doubts about whether the Russian president has lost contact with reality.

This only raises the stakes. It is thought Putin might be unwilling to see reason from any power outside Russia’s sphere of influence. Russia has historic ties to eastern Ukraine, and the Crimean Peninsula itself is a major strategic outpost for the Russian Navy. Putin did seek permission from the Russian Parliament to take action to “protect Russian interests in Ukraine”.

He has not, however, followed his own standard—enunciated last year in an op-ed to the New York Times on the issue of western strikes against Syria—of seeking UN authorization. There is mounting and very grave concern about the “impunity” of Putin’s government in what appears to be the naked annexation of an entire region of a sovereign foreign country.

There are now ongoing discussions regarding possible diplomatic sanctions to be taken against Putin and members of his government and military. European Union leaders, as some of the most significant trading partners for Russia’s wealthy fossil fuels sector, may seek to use trade tactics to target the channels of wealth that feed Putin’s regime.

The UN Security Council is now being called to emergency session. Russia is expected to take one of two paths there: either to make the case that this mobilization is a “domestic” affair, not rising to the level of a global security issue, or to argue that the other permanent members of the Security Council, who hold veto power, should abstain from voting, to avoid splitting the Council on the handling of Syria and Iran.

Astute observers are noting that Putin’s actions—right up to and including the full military ultimatum—do indicate his operating on a completely different plane of law and security priorities from any of the other regional powers, including the US as NATO’s most significant power.

It is becoming more difficult for any of the G7 economic partners to attend Putin’s scheduled G8 summit at Sochi. The cost to Russia, in share losses, currency devaluation, and now possibly economic sanctions, of this invasion is already far higher than the record sums spent to host the Olympic Games. Following that costly experiment with international peace and civility with such a wasteful gambit, Putin may be putting his own government at risk.

As the state needs to draw still more on the limited wealth of its people, to feed Putin’s aimless braggadoccio, the will of Russia’s growing opposition will be hardened, and the dismay many Russians already feel at Putin’s inability to build lasting partnerships with foreign powers, will deepen. Putin’s radically aggressive military response to the protest-driven overthrow of a corrupt, murderous regime in Ukraine suggests Putin will not be able to handle protests at home.

It is not out of place to say that Putin may be revealing what so many have for so long suspected: that he is less interested in building a real future of global leadership for Russia’s people than in returning to the unhealthy power dynamics of the Cold War era.

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