Staunton, July 7 – What may become a central plank in Moscow’s propaganda about and policy toward Ukraine has now emerged with a Russian analyst arguing that the West should accept as final and legitimate Moscow’s annexation of Crimea because Vladimir Putin is showing such restraint elsewhere in Ukraine.
Anton Chablin points out that the Russian Federation Council at Putin’s urging has withdrawn its authorization for the use of Russian force in Ukraine, that Putin has met with the Ukrainian president, and that the Kremlin leader has put forward plans for “de-escalating the conflict”.
But despite such good and restrained behavior by the Russian president, Chablin continues, “’hawks’ in Brussels and at the Pentagon” continue to challenge Russia’s annexation of Crimea as illegitimate and seek to reverse it through the use of sanctions, non-recognition policies, and other means. Why should they given how well Putin is behaving elsewhere.
At one level, this argument is simply absurd. Putin wants the West to accept his illegal Anschluss of Crimea because he hasn’t occupied any other part of Ukraine at least not for the present. If any other world leader or child asked to be excused for one bad action because he hadn’t committed another, that request would be laughed out of court as it were.
But Putin has typically been able to rely on double standards: he and his regime are not held to the same standards as others. Instead, they are held if at all to much lower ones. And consequently, the notion that his occupation of Crimea should be accepted as a way out of the crisis because he hasn’t occupied Donetsk and Luhansk may very well find support.
At least some in the West may view this as a way out for Putin at home and a way to avoid a continuing confrontation between Moscow and the West. Putin currently is under heavy criticism from many Russians for not dispatching the Russian army to help pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk against Ukrainian forces.
If the Kremlin leader can get the West to recognize his annexation of Crimea, he can argue that his Ukrainian adventure constitutes a victory for Russia and for himself, simultaneously silencing his opponents on the Novorossiya issue and perhaps winning even more support from the Russian population.
And if Moscow and the West can come to at least an implicit trade-off between Russia’s backing off in eastern Ukraine and the West’s backing off on Crimea, relations between Russia and the West can return to “normal,” with gas and trade resuming and more rounds of meetings between a supposedly chastened Putin and Western leaders rescheduled.
In an era when profits trump principles, when quick fixes are valued over longer-term solutions and when so many officials and experts have linked their careers to cooperation with Moscow, such an approach is likely to find many takers in Western capitals and on Western editorial pages.
But there are three compelling reasons why Western countries must reject it. First, Putin’s Anschluss of Crimea is the first annexation of territory by a European country since World War II. If it is allowed to stand or worse to be accepted, there will be other instances of this kind of crime in the future – including quite possibly by Putin’s Russia itself
Second, helping Putin in this way with his domestic opponents won’t transform him into a democratic reformer. Instead, it will allow him to gain even higher approval ratings among Russians for a “victory” over the West and thus to pursue with the ostensible blessing of the Russian people his ever more authoritarian and obscurantist course.
And third and most important, even if it is not the most compelling argument in some policy circles, Putin’s aggression in Crimea is and remains wrong. It must be denounced because it is wrong, and a policy must be put in place to underscore that reality even if it cannot be reversed quickly.
One of the most admirable and ultimately successful US policies ever was its non-recognition of the illegal occupation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania by the Soviet Union as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed when Hitler and Stalin were allies and which opened the way to World War II in Europe.
It took half a century for non-recognition policy to achieve its goals. But next month, the three Baltic countries will mark the 75th anniversary of that criminal deal between dictators, and they will do so as full members of the European Union and NATO. It would be a sad commentary on our times if we were snookered by Putin into taking a less forthright stand now.