Russia and the West were locked in a Cold War–like standoff this week after 16,000 Russian troops seized control of Ukraine’s strategic Crimean Peninsula. President Obama accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of “violating international law,” while Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the incursion as an “incredible act of aggression” that could result in visa bans, asset freezes, and the boycott of this summer’s G-8 summit of world leaders in Sochi. Russian forces began streaming into Crimea—home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet and a majority ethnic Russian population—just days after Ukraine’s Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted by pro-Western protesters and fled to Russia. Russian soldiers surrounded Ukrainian military bases in Crimea, but forces loyal to Kiev refused to surrender. “We will fight back until the last drop of our blood,” said one Ukrainian commander.
Putin defended his country’s actions as a “humanitarian mission” to protect ethnic Russians from rebels he claimed had illegally seized power in Kiev. But he appeared to rule out for now any intervention in eastern Ukraine, which is also home to many ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians. “Such a measure,” he said, “would certainly be the very last resort.” In Kiev, diplomats tried to forge an agreement in which pro-Russian Ukrainians would be guaranteed participation in May elections for a new government. Meanwhile, the U.S. and the European Union moved to stabilize the debt-loaded interim government, with the EU pledging $15 billion in aid over the next two years, on top of $1 billion in loan guarantees from Washington.
What the editorials said
Obama needs to punish Putin for this outrage, rather than issue empty threats, said The Wall Street Journal. The U.S. should put pressure on Russia’s already fragile economy by restricting its banks’ access to the international financial system, and freezing the foreign assets of Putin’s favorite oligarchs. “The U.S. can also deploy ships from the Europe-based 6th Fleet into the Black Sea.”
Russia should pay a price for its incursion into Crimea, said The Boston Globe, but “the U.S. has nothing to gain from reigniting the Cold War.” We need Russia’s cooperation on multiple fronts, including removing chemical weapons from Syria, keeping Iran from building a nuclear bomb, and withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan later this year. Crimea may be lost, so the goal of our sticks and carrots should be to make sure Putin stays out of the rest of Ukraine.
What the columnists said
If the Kremlin holds on to Crimea, said Ulrich Speck in CNN.com,Russia “will come to the conclusion that it can act like an empire.” Moscow’s pretext of protecting ethnic Russians could be used against former Soviet satellite states from Lithuania to Kazakhstan. Having witnessed the West’s failure to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty, those countries would have no choice but to submit to Russian domination.
When the U.S. lectures Russia about respecting other nations’ sovereignty, it has a real credibility problem, said Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post. We invaded Iraq in 2003 based on false claims of weapons of mass destruction, and we’re currently firing “deadly missiles into Pakistan, Yemen, and who knows where else.” This makes it hard “to base U.S. objections on principle.” Let’s not forget that the rebels in Kiev bear some blame for this invasion, said Dmitri Simes in NewRepublic.com. When the interim government took power last month, it eliminated Russian as an official second language, creating fear that Ukraine’s new leaders were “hostile to the Russian-speaking population.” That needless provocation gave Putin an excuse to intervene.
Despite his display of aggression, Putin is now in a weak position, said Fred Kaplan in Slate.com. His real goal has been to restore Russia’s superpower status. Now, if he doesn’t back down in Ukraine, the West could eject Moscow from the G-8, and other penalties will batter his already struggling economy. And by invading Crimea, he’s alarmed the former Soviet republics he had hoped to unite in a Eurasian Economic Union. “Putin is not as brilliant as the Cold Warriors think.”