Considering Russia’s takeover of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, a strategically vital landmass in the Black Sea and centuries-long home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet, Ancient Greek historian Thucydides would be preaching to the choir in Kiev today.
In his Melian Dialogue, Thucydides wrote of the 5th-Century BC Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, the superpowers of their time. He described the plight of Melos, a tiny island allied with Sparta that Athens eventually destroyed, by saying “the strong do what they can, the weak suffer as they must.” Those words still apply today in Ukraine.
Though Western-friendly mass protests forced out Ukraine’s clearly pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych last month after he cancelled a pending free trade agreement with the European Union in favor of accepting a $15 billion loan and cheaper natural gas from Russia, Vladimir Putin now thinks it’s his turn to push back.
The often shirtless, tiger hunting, horse riding judo expert and all-around macho man is showing his strength in an intentional contrast with President Obama’s weakness.
After staging major military exercises on Ukraine’s border, his Russian forces took over Crimea’s major airports in Sevastopol and Simferopal. Russia’s Upper House of Parliament then unanimously approved a much larger use of force, and on Saturday, more than 15,000 Russian troops stormed into Ukraine.
Though Crimea was part of Russia prior to 1954 when the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev “gifted” it to Ukraine, the administrative transfer didn’t matter much, as both were part of the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, the reason for the “gift” remains important. In the early 1930s, millions of Ukrainians died in the Holodomor, a man-made famine caused by Premier Joseph Stalin. A year after Stalin died in 1953, Khrushchev wisely sought to make amends with this largely symbolic gift.
Ukrainians and Russians haven’t forgotten the Holodomor, but Vladimir Putin couldn’t care less.
He apparently enjoys showcasing his typical toughness to “protect” the majority ethnic-Russians in Crimea, while the West has yet to match his resolve.
We’ve seen this movie before, and it doesn’t end well for justice or freedom. In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia to “protect” Russians in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, effectively stripping those regions from Georgian control ever since. Although the West condemned Russia and pushed hard for a cease fire, it was of little help to Georgia.
In stark contrast to Putin, the White House under President Barack Obama has adopted a significantly lower-profile foreign policy than the previous administration, with almost no focus on upholding liberty as a basic value.
So what would a strong American President do about the current Ukranian crisis? First, he would stand up for Ukraine in every way possible, and not just with a hollow warning to Russia about an undefined “cost” associated with military intervention. Once again, Mr. Obama is showing a weak hand.
On the diplomatic front, a strong American president would recall the U.S. ambassador from Moscow until Russian forces and their surrogates return genuine sovereignty of Crimea to Ukraine. At the very least, Washington should be pushing for U.N. resolutions condemning Russia’s use of force.