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Putin and Geopolitical Poker

Republicans are beating up on President Obama, telling him to do something to stop Putin from interfering in Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin

Senator Bob Corker, Ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is good example of Republican thinking on the subject of Russia and Ukraine. “The Russian government has felt free to intervene militarily in Ukraine because the United States,” Corker said, “along with Europe, has failed to make clear there would be serious, potentially irreparable consequences to such action.”

Exactly what “serious, potentially irreparable consequences” does Senator Corker have in mind?  “The United States and our European allies should immediately bring to bear all elements of our collective economic strength to stop Russian advances in Ukraine,” he said.  Oh, our economic strength — maybe that means boycotts or trade sanctions or limiting the G8  to G7, something like that. Or, better yet,  maybe we can withdraw our ambassador from Moscow before they withdraw theirs from Washington, that’s been suggested, too.

The unpleasant fact is that in this game of geopolitical poker, Putin is holding the strong cards.

The US is currently trying to disentangle itself from its longest war; our voters are broke, the Republicans want to shrink government and cut taxes, the Democrats want to raise the minimum wage and the middle class, and everybody is tired of wonderful foreign adventures to bring democracy wherever. Furthermore, the US wants cooperation from Putin in negotiations with Iran over its nuclear facilities, and in Syria and in regard to North Korea.

Ukraine had been part of Russia for about 300 years. Russia gave Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 when Russia and Ukraine were part of the Soviet Union – or Evil Empire, as President Regan correctly called it. And Crimea is sufficiently distinct from the rest of Ukraine that it’s a semi-autonomous republic with its own parliament. Ukraine has been an independent nation since 1991 when the Soviet Union fell apart – that’s 23 years, during which time it’s  had a largely corrupt pro-Russian government, the underlying reason  it lost the support of its people.

What’s going on in Ukraine is terribly important for the Ukrainians. As for Russia and the West,  in terms of strategic geopolitics, it’s far more important to Putin and the future of Russia than it is to the United States or the nations of Western Europe.  We can jawbone the Russians and we can put together NATO meetings, committees and envoys and negotiators. But the principal actor in this dangerous game isn’t a politician in the United States or Europe, he’s an autocrat in the Kremlin.

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