Russia’s Crimean gambit paid off. Vladimir Putin orchestrated, in Stalin-esque fashion, the outright annexation of the strategically critical Black Sea peninsula, prying it away from Ukraine with barely a shot fired. With Russia’s clear intentions to swallow Crimea, with its paramilitary forces holding all the key access points and 60,000 plus troops poised on the border to march onto the peninsula, it is no surprise that those who showed up at the polls on Sunday, March 16, overwhelmingly chose to accept Russian rule. Dissenting voices within the Crimea, well aware of Putin’s human rights track record, have already disappeared.
On Tuesday, channeling his inner-Nikita Khrushchev, standing before a joint session of the Russian parliament, Putin delivered a 66-minute, invective laced address defying the United States and its NATO allies, unequivocally, forcefully asserting Russia’s nationalistic objectives to unify Russian speaking peoples, regardless of country borders. Afterwards, Putin signed the documents that the Kremlin claims transfers control of the Crimea from Ukraine to Russia permanently.
I can only imagine the deep sense of betrayal that Ukrainians must feel towards the United States and its NATO allies who once issued “territorial integrity” guarantees to Ukraine in exchange for the dismantling of its Cold War nuclear stockpiles. Our “guarantees,” it turns out, mean precisely nothing. Not only have we refused to ramp up our military presence in Eastern Europe, we flat out denied the Ukrainian government’s appeal for basic arms and ammunition, not wishing to “inflame” Russia. We have sold out the Ukrainian people.
I wonder which countries are next on Putin’s list. Moldova? Georgia? Bulgaria? Romania? All of the countries of the former Soviet Union? Are we to stand aside while the Russian kleptocracy tightens its grip on the Balkans and Eastern Europe? Imposing unenforceable sanctions and crying to the United Nations, where Russia and its ally China both hold veto power on the Security Council, will only encourage further Russian aggression. These are people who see weakness in anything but strength.
This Crimean crisis brings to the fore just how much our influence has diminished over the last 15 years. We no longer command the respect of the world. Our economic might, while still considerable, is weighed down by crushing national debt and impossible entitlement commitments. Our banking and financial sectors tipped the world into a great recession, wiping out trillions of dollars in value. Our unaccountable intelligence community has trampled our liberties, offended our closest allies and inflamed anti-US sentiments. Our political institutions are fractured; ideological divides are widening into chasms, resulting in perpetual election warfare and “zero-sum-game” policy battles.
Meanwhile, our military festers with corruption and a lack of discipline; top generals and admirals are court-martialed for sexual assault, graft and theft; dozens of airmen responsible for overseeing our nuclear arsenal are busted for wholesale cheating on launch procedure exams; hundreds of military recruiting officers are caught orchestrating incentive kickback schemes, bilking taxpayers out of hundreds of millions of dollars; enlisted soldiers are live-tweeting on-base drag queen pageants, posting sexually explicit YouTube videos and photo-bombing flag-draped caskets.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “our chief want in life is somebody who will make us do what we can.” Perhaps it was inevitable that, as the last superpower standing following the Cold War, we (myself included) came to accept American exceptionalism as an incontrovertible fact. Putin clearly intends to challenge that assertion. The Bear has awakened. Russia is once again on the move. Words and sanctions will not be enough to balance these old yet new geopolitical equations. Perhaps Putin is that somebody who will, finally, make us do what we can.
Dan Liljenquist is a former state senator and former U.S. Senate candidate.