Though Putin has had his hand in the events of the last week in Ukraine, he actually hadn’t made any formal comments – until today.
In an hour long, unscripted press conference in Moscow, Putin called the events in Ukraine since November as an “unconstitutional coup”. Indeed, these are the same words that former Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych used as he was being pushed out. (As recently as Saturday, Yanukovych continues to call himself the legitimate president of Ukraine).
But Putin didn’t stop at “unconstitutional coup”. While he claims that he sees no reason for the Russian military to intervene – ignoring the fact that by all accounts they already have in Crimea over the weekend – he is reserving the “right to use all means at our disposal to protect” Russian speakers in Ukraine.
Putin continued, “If we make such a decision, it will only be for the protection of Ukrainian citizens. And God forbid if any of the servicemen tries to shoot their own people, we will be standing behind them – not in front, but behind. Let them try to shoot women and children!””
So Putin is freezing action for a while. There will be no war – at least not in the next few days.
That said, the Russian President’s view of the current situation and what has gone on throughout the winter in Ukraine is firmly at odds with how the rest of the world views the Ukrainian peoples’ struggle for freedom. Calling the protestors “radicals,” Putin told us everything we already knew and need to know in his own words: we’re not going to be able to simply negotiate with the Russian leader.
While I won’t argue that the US is doing all that it could in terms of freezing Russia out at this point, there has been some movement.
Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Kiev today to show support for the new Ukrainian government. At the same time, the Obama administration announced a $1 billion energy subsidy package, which includes training for financial and election institutions and anti-corruption efforts.
There is talk of economic sanctions against Russia hitting as early as this week. And, apparently, the US has suspended discussions over a bilateral trade investment treaty with Russia as a result of Putin’s occupation of Crimea. The Pentagon announced that it was suspending military-to-military engagements between the US and Russia, including exercises, bilateral meetings and conferences.
Senator John McCain was explicit this morning on MSNBC: “Vladimir Putin does not want a democracy on his borders. That would be a very bad example from his point of view to be set for the Russian people,” he said.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce was equally defiant. “We can’t just keep talking. We need to do something,” he commented. Royce would like to see the US and Europe threaten the Russian stock market, economy and ruble if Russia doesn’t withdraw from Crimea.
But there’s the rub: Putin denies that Russian troops have occupied Crimea. He called the Russian military personnel in the region, wearing unmarked uniforms, “local defense forces.”
There is no reason to expect Putin to come to his senses. Just as he suggested that it was the rebels in Syria using chemical weapons as opposed to Syrian President Assad, he will continue to defend Yanukovych and his rightful place as President of Ukraine.
And Putin will continue to criticize the US, and the west more generally, for our interference in matters that have nothing to do with us. As he put it, the US has interfered in Ukraine “from across the pond in America as if they were sitting in a laboratory and running experiments on rats, without any understanding of the consequences.”
There is something to be said for a nation’s right to deal with their own problems and I believe that we have been guilty of intervening unnecessarily over the years. However, this is not an instance where we can, or should, take a backseat. The stakes are just too high.
Putin has said that it’s up to us if we come to the G8 meeting in Sochi in June, he’s having the meeting with us or not.