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"Grass is Greener" conundrum; more conundrum

While there is still a lot of hand-wringing in DC about Crimea becoming part of Russia, we might consider this story in the NYTimes about the consequences of joining Russia. South Ossetia signed up in 2008 after a scuffle between Russia and Georgia; now a certain amount of seller's remorse has emerged, at least economically.

Even if the Times story suggests a bout of schadenfreude, the outcome may be of interest to the Crimeans. "These days South Ossetia’s economy is entirely dependent on budgetary funds from Russia. Unemployment is high, and so are prices, since goods must now be shuttled in through the tunnel, long and thin like a drinking straw, that cuts through the Caucasus ridge from Russia. Its political system is controlled by elites loyal to Moscow, suddenly wealthy enough to drive glossy black cars, though many roads are pitted or unpaved."

William Pfaff speaks: Right here at Commonweal, a balanced and brief assessment of what Putin is NOT likely to do.

UPDATES: Leadership is a major challenge for Ukraine as it attempts to move ahead. The heroine of the moment, Yulia Tymoshenko, recently released from jail is likely to be a candidate in the coming elections. This profile shows why many Ukrainians who hope for change might hesitate to re-elect her though as Putin has said, "She's the only man in Ukraine." He should know!

A Round-Up of what the EU missed in the run-up to the Ukraine conundrum. Detailed but succinct analysis; some helpful maps. Ukrainian Tumult Highlights EU's Past Missteps and Future Dangers.

A Kathleen Parker interview with Nikita Kruschev's (he gave Ukraine the Crimea) great-great grandaughter; it's about Putin and what he did and is likely to do (or not). HT: Jim Jenkins

About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.



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I find it more than a little ironic that the USA is sooo concerned about so called Russian "aggression"

Pot meet kettle!!

Yes, ironic. Especially the big black cars having to ride over big black potholes! New York after a hard winter!

But sad that in so many places--Ukraine, Egypt, Lybia, West Bank--young men and women find themselves trapped in places where the economy, the politics, the social conditions offer so few opportunities for them to live and to work. And when they protest to change those conditions, how often they find themselves trapped yet again.

 Yes Margaret, I do also Agree with pfaff. 

"...long and thin like a drinking straw..."

South Osettians grasping at straws.

I don't buy Pfaff's analysis. The fact that Crimea is dependent on Ukraine for electricity and water, plus the fact that there are significant Russian minorities in Eastern Ukraine, suggests to me that Putin, emboldened by success, will follow it by more acts of aggression against Ukraine -- ostensibly to aid the Russians there, but actually to seize resources. Russia doesn't want to have to support Crimea indefinitely. Does Putin have everything he wants, as Pfaff seems to think? It's one thing to promise the salaries will be paid in the short run. It's another to have to supply half of Crimea's budget, and 80% of its water and electricity.

A time of unrest seems likely. The vote was surrounded by guns. And the Crimean Tartars, a significant minority, sided with Ukraine and boycotted the vote. 

Nina Khrushcheva - Nikita Khrushchev's great-granddaughter - an associate professor of international affairs at the New School in NY believes that Putin is less a bully than "an old KGB chinovnik," a petty clerk.

Kathleen Parker writing in the WP relates:

Although Putin enjoys the popular image of the terrifying KGB agent, Khrushcheva says he was really a clerk whose nickname was “Moth.” More Miss Moneypenny than James Bond.

IF (and I acknowledge that is a big "IF") as Putin said in his speech yesterday that he will NOT seek to assimilate more territory from Ukraine, Putin may be biting-off more than he can chew.  The Crimea will now become an economic drain upon Russia.  And now that there are fewer "Russia-lovers" in Ukraine by almost a million, it will now be a lot easier politically for Ukraine to align itself with the West.  All politics is local!

Poland and the Baltic states - already our military allies through NATO and for whom we are committed to defending their national security - both advocate for Ukraine's eventual membership in NATO.  Ukraine as a NATO ally right on Russia's border?  I think that Vladimir will take-off his shirt on that one.

Parker goes on:

In his own mind, Putin is “messianic, a uniter of lands and corrector of historic wrongs,” Khrushcheva says sarcastically. Which is to say, he is often delusional. Yet his delusion is buffeted by the wounded pride of his countrymen, many of whom also want to see the motherland restored to greatness.

Let's all remember what was the strategic result of the Cold War:  the Soviet Union imploded.  If the West plays their cards right again, the same result for Russia is possibel, maybe even probable, now.  

Russia in the final analysis needs the West more than we need Russia.  Russia can't drink all those petroleum reserves - they need access to Western markets to keep their kleptocracy going.  Either that, or all those Russian energy oligarchs will have to give-up their London mansions, vacation homes in Italy, and secret bank accounts in Geneva and Zurich.

As Catherine the Great once said:

A great wind is glowing, and that give you either imagination or a headache.


Sorry.  That Catherine the Great quote is better rendered:

"A great wind is blowing, and that gives you either imagination or a headache."

Sounds more like Madonna!

The wild card here, or one of them, is the behavior of the "Russians" in eastern Ukraine, i.e., the citizens of the Ukraine. Will they provoke an intervention by The Russians? Those over their border. Hard to tell the meaning of the protests, etc. CJ Chivers is the only report I've read that describes the theaterical, more than the political, nature of these (posted below).

The other wild card is VP Joe Biden showing up in Poland and Luthuania promising to protect them. He must be running for president.


One of the wild cards in all of this is the fact that Ukraine, like any number of Eastern European nations over the cneturies, is more or less a made up country, with respect to its borders.  And sisnce the 10th Century it has been an on-again off again part of Russia.  Its been under a whole range of different rulers, and it has been partitioned among a variety of nations who paid more or less attention to it and provided it with more or less control at various times.  Eastern Ukraine was more or less part of the Russian empire from the mid-18thCentruy up to World War I.  Western Ukraine bounced back and forth among the Poles and later the Austian Empire.  During World War I, both the Russians and the Austo-hungarians  had Ukrainian units. Between the World Wars, parts of Ukraine were controlled by Poland, parts by Russia, and briefly an independent Ukraine existed.   Crimea was not added to Ukraine until 1954.  One would be hard pressed to say it was ever ethnically Ukrainian.  None of this justifies the recent Russian move to annex Crimea, but it does, I think contribute to the understanding of why Russia has a different view of this situation than we do. 

One of Putin's (and generally Russian) defenses of his tactics is protecting Russian speakers. Presumably some were once citizens of the Soviet Union who migrated; others may be the children of such; still others may simply be locals who speak Russian. This is why the Baltic countries are anxious about Putin's argument; Estonia has had run-ins with its Russian-speaking inhabitants, who may or may not be citizens.

Would England, Canada, or the U.S. ever use this as a justification for attacking Mexico? Belguim? Sweden? where there are many English speakers. Hard to imagine.

There is something screwy about Putin's position. Did they leave Russian speakers in Afghanistan? or Viet-Nam?

As I mentioned before, Ukraine is interesting from a Catholic point of view. They always seem to be in this half and half territory.

They are, by and large, Eastern Rite and were quick to jump on the unitate olive branch (meaning they could keep all their customs including married priests, their liturgy, their canons, etc., etc.) extended by the Vatican especially at Vatican II.

Their Russian Orthodox counterparts have not been so quick.

This terrritory, for at least 1000 has been living in this east/west tension as far as the Christian world is concerned.


Probably you are right that we wouldn't use these justifications but the situation isn't even vaguely comparable, it seems to me.  Canada isn't nor has it been really part of the US, for example.  On the other hand, the US did invade a country on a fairly flimsy pretext a few years back...something about weapons of mass destruction as I recall.  It wasn't a neighbor, but it also wasn't any kind of a threat to us...When powers decide they want to invade weaker nations, they can usually come up with some justification.  Not sure this situation is much different.  I'm also not sure what we can do about it beyond what we've done. 

Russia may very well be criticised for its actions in the Crimea. But given our wars of adventure in the past decade and continual meddling in meso-America and South America, that criticism had best be launched from other countries.

I don't see anything "screwy" about Putin's position. It's nasty, brutish and atavistic. But not screwy. Number one: Sevastapol means a lot more to the Russian Navy, as a warm-water port, than Guantanamo does to us. Can you imagine the U.S. national tsouris if a Cuban government said it owns Guantanomo.

Number Two, Putin has put up with us shocking and awe-ing our way into two countries within the historic Russian sphere of influence with only a "any help you can give us, Vlad, will be appreciated (but not enough that you will notice)." He has listened to us pillory him for not helping "the world," i.e., the U.S., help the rebels overthrow his buddy Assad in Syria even as we threaten to help Israel take out its enemy, Iran, on the Russian back porch. Oh, by the way, Vlad, help us overthrow the ayatollahs, too, and it will be appreciated (but not so much that you will notice.)

There is one superpower in the world, and it is the most needful superpower you have ever seen. It is  asking Putin for help with Iran and help with Syria and offering nothing in return. He has arrived at the conclusion that maybe the world needs a second superpower. Wonder whatever gave him that idea.

Any Pole over the age of 18 can tell you where this is going, if not the exact timetable. It is only Americans and their media that find the inevitable inconceivable.

@ MOS re likelihood of Joe Biden running for president:  Watch and see if Hilary abandons her lofty perch as Empress-in-waiting to campaign heavily  this fall for in-trouble and/or distressed Democratic governors and congressional candidates, taking on the crazed right-wing Republicans and Tea Partiers.  The Democrats could use a field general to rally around this fall.

Going all the way back to Richard Nixon, going on the hustings in the mid-terms prior to the presidential campaign is the choice way to secure the nomination.  That's what Barack Obama did.  It's the best way to bank a lot of political IOU's.

Poor Joe Biden:  He has wanted to be president his whole life.  Now I think he is just too old at age 71 - he'll be pushing 74 by the time November 2016 rolls around. Reagan was a positively youthful 69 y.o. when he was elected in comparison - and his early onset of Alzheimer's should give us all pause of going that road again.

Still not completely convinced that Hilary is totally commited to the 2016 race.  Except for the really ambitiously crazed among us, there should be a lot of other things at her age that interest you before running for president - like being a grandmother maybe?  Maybe Chelsea should be the next Clinton in the White House?  [You know, it is in their genes, in their blood!]

In 988, Prince Vladimir I of Kiev officially adopted the religion of the Eastern Roman Empire as the state religion – a date that is often considered the official birthday of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Now, Vladimir Putin claims to be a member of the Russian Orthodox Church. He has been seen attending services and crossing himself. The Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill called the 12 years of Vladimir Putin's rule a "miracle of God.”

Is it possible that Putin has his eye on the Ukraine so that he can incorporated this historic city into Russia? (Vladimir II?)

Do the people in Crimea have an affinity for Russia because they have ethnic/historic connections? Are they basically separated Russians?  Or are there any kind of issues like in Ireland, where today's pro-English Irish are descendents of people settled there by the English themselves to cement the English presence?

Why are the Crimeans loyal to Russia and not the Ukraine?  



The Tatars have been referred to as the indigenous inhabitants of Crimea. When Catherine the Great took it from the Ottoman Empire, it became part of the Russian Empire. When Stalin came to power he forced the Tatars to Tatarstan in the East; many have since returned to Crimea and were not in favor of Russia retaking control. The Crimea offers Russia its only warm-water port and access to the Mediterranean and beyond. Did the Ukrainians interfere with the Russian navy or shipping? Russia had a very long-term lease but Putin and Co. seemed to be smarting still from Kruschev incorporating it into Ukraine (then a part of the Soviet Empire).

In some ways this seizure seems not to be wholly based on rational self-interest. If France demanded back Louisiana to protect French speakers in Louisiana we wouldn't consider that rational self-interest. But neither would our going to war with France over Louisiana be in our rational self-interest. All this suggesting, rational may not be the first rule of national interest.


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