China applauds as Putin rebuffs Obama on Crimea

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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Russian President Vladimir Putin isn’t budging from Crimea, the Chinese government is signaling support for him and President Barack Obama is taking a weekend vacation in the Florida Keys.

Obama and Putin held another 90-minute phone call Thursday night, in which Obama urged Putin to drop his support for Crimean secession from Ukraine.

“Obama indicated that there is a way to resolve the situation diplomatically, which addresses the interests of Russia, the people of Ukraine, and the international community,” said the White House statement.

Today, Obama is leaving D.C. for a 2014 campaign stop in Florida, where he will tout his opportunity agenda, and then will spend the weekend in Key Largo. He’s expected to continue his campaign events next week.

So far, the crisis has not visibly damaged Obama’s domestic clout, but his poll ratings remain in the low 40s.

The Kremlin responded to the Obama outreach with an uncompromising statement.

“Vladimir Putin noted that the current Ukrainian government, which came to power as the result of an unconstitutional coup and was not supported by a nationwide mandate, is imposing entirely illegitimate decisions onto Crimea and the eastern and southeastern regions of Ukraine,” said the Russian statement.

“Russia cannot ignore calls for help on this matter and is responding accordingly, in full compliance with international law,” it added.

The Russian statement then included some boilerplate about diplomatic negotiations that included a vague suggestion of a willingness to compromise. “The President of Russia stressed the paramount importance of Russian-US relations for ensuring stability and security… these relations should not be sacrificed due to disagreements on individual international issues, even if they are very significant.”

So far, Russian has not moved its forces into eastern Ukraine, where the population consists mostly of ethnic Russians rather than ethnic Ukrainians. The population in Crimea is mostly Russian. Western and central Ukraine are majority Ukrainian.

Putin’s strategic goal is unclear. He may be trying to bring Crimea back into Russia, or he may be using the pro-Russian population of the Ukraine and Crimea to weaken and cripple Ukraine’s government and keep the country away from Europe’s protection and under Russia’s influence.

Putin may also be trying to humiliate and weaken Obama, partly because of Russia’s self-interest in a weakened, less-assertive United States.

Putin has other strategic and cultural reasons to challenge Obama, who has tried to knock down Russia’s Syrian ally, and has repeatedly criticized Russia about rights for Russian gays and lesbians.

But during this crisis, China’s Xinhua government news agency printed a March 7 editorial backing the Russian move.

“Russian military personnel [are] deployed in eastern Ukraine to protect Russia’s legitimate interests and pro-Russian regions [are] clamoring for a secession from Kiev,” said the editorial, which blamed the crisis on secret western plots that caused the collapse last month of the corrupt, pro-Russian president.

“The West’s strategy for installing a so-called democratic and pro-Western Ukrainian government did not get anywhere at all… [and] Russian leaders once again proved their credibility and shrewdness in planning and executing effective counter moves.” said the editorial.

China has its own reasons for supporting Russia, as it wants to minimize international criticism of its control over Tibet, which it invaded and occupied in the early 1950s after a long war. It also wants to avoid future foreign involvement in any future strike against Taiwan, an ethnically Chinese island that has been de-facto independent since the Chinese Communist Party seized control on the mainland in 1949.

The Chinese government still claims ownership of the wealthy, U.S.-protected island and its 23 million people.

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Neil Munro