The hour-long phone call by Russian President Vladimir Putin to American President Barack Obama Friday was unexpected and almost unwelcome.
It came after America and Russia had circled the wagons over Russia’s forceful annexation of Crimea. Both nations had already leveled retaliatory sanctions against high ranking and outspoken officials on the other side of the Bering Strait. In DC, it was considered a slight if your name didn’t make the list.
One of those sanctioned by name, Sen. John McCain (R.-Az.) responded with a two-fingered Twitter salute: “I guess this means my spring break in Siberia is off, Gazprom stock is lost and secret bank account in Moscow is frozen.” McCain wrote that he was “proud to be sanctioned by Putin” and promised to “never cease” his efforts on behalf of the “freedom and independence of Ukraine, which includes Crimea.”
McCain’s reaction was restrained compared to some. Hillary Clinton, former secretary of state under Obama and a likely Democratic nominee in 2016 has likened Putin, repeatedly, to Hitler. Obama went with a safer Cold War analogy that also meshed with his progressive politics, declaring Putin “on the wrong side of history.”
Putin’s surprise call savaged the itinerary of current U.S. secretary of state John Kerry. His plane had stopped for refueling in Shannon, Ireland after a Middle East trip. Rather than come home, Kerry headed to Paris for talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
In Paris today, Kerry will have to overcome his own ineffective threat-making over Crimea, as well as a good dollop of Russian and American pride, to avert a shooting war. Kerry had said that “all options” were on the table as the West looked at Russia’s initial occupation of Crimea and threatened dire consequences if Putin allowed a referendum on annexation to take place.
Yet two options have mercifully been taken off the table, at least for this extended weekend. Obama insists that Russia will not be dislodged from Crimea through military force. And Lavrov, Kerry’s Russian partner in diplomatic talks, said Saturday, “We have absolutely no intention of — or interest in — crossing Ukraine’s borders.”
If it has no interest in invasion, then Russia will have to pull back from the brink. It has a reported 40,000 troops massed near the Crimean/Ukrainian border. Even if we grant Russia’s claim to Crimea, large troop buildups along a border are still recognized as legitimate cause for war.
According to the Just War Theory, if country R is amassing a sizeable army on the border of country U, U does not have to wait for R to cross that invisible line to fire the first shot. This sensible framework has been incorporated into international law as well.
Kerry’s Brahmin boringness makes him a hard character to muster much sympathy for, yet anyone in his position would have an un-enviable task today. He will be arguing with the Russian minister not only over how to best to resolve this conflict but, first, over what framework they should start from — America’s tentative diplomatic proposal, or Russia’s.
Worse, he may have to tamp down not just one secession/annexation crisis, but two. In Moldova, a nation that abuts Ukraine to the Southwest, the largely Russian-speaking breakaway region of Transdniestria has requested annexation.
Russia already has troops garrisoned there and held military exercises Tuesday to draw world attention to this region’s “plight.” According to the Kremlin, Transdniestria was one of the points Putin raised in his phone call with Obama Friday. Also, some wiseacres have started a petition on the White house website to give Alaska back to the Russians. If that becomes a subject of conversation in Paris, we’ll know that things have gone pretty far South.
If Kerry’s Paris talks fail, it will make war, one with American involvement, more likely. It’s an exaggeration to say Russia took the Crimean peninsula without firing a shot, but most of those were warning shots. The death toll was small. Most residents of Crimea appear to have been OK with annexation. After all, not all of those ballots were faked.
But if Russia can’t be made to back down after taking Crimea, there are a lot of horrific scenarios to ponder. For now, while they’re still jaw-jawing, let’s just say the portents are ominous and say a little prayer for the peace of nations.