I was going to write this article exclusively about how Vladimir Putin and the Russians bought five of their thirteen gold medals at the recent Sochi winter Olympic. Putin has been anxious to impress everyone that Russia has returned to the world stage, trying to erase the memory the breakup of the Soviet Union which left his homeland a second rate world power. To win the bid for the 2014 winter games, Russia promised to spend a record amount money on Olympic facilities and then proceeded to pour $51 billion into preparations, security, and execution. This is a staggering sum, especially when compared $1.7 billion spent by Vancouver in 2010 and the $4.7 billion spent by Torino in 2006. It even dwarfs the record $44 billion spent by the Chinese in Beijing on the usually much more expensive summer Olympics.
Of course, to complete the glorious picture which Putin was trying to paint Russians athletes had to excel in the Olympics as well. In many western countries Olympic committees have to raise private money to support the training of their Olympic athletes because they receive virtually no government support. In contrast the Russian government provides total financial support for their athletes and they train in style. In the years proceeding the Sochi games, Russian winter athletes lacked for nothing in the way of training facilities, equipment, accommodations and person compensation.
However, with the fall of its empire, Russia can no longer commandeer the athletes of the fourteen other countries which made up the former Soviet Union to ratchet up their Olympic glory. They are now limited to the athletes within their own borders. Or are they? Seeking to bolster their teams in Olympic events where they previously have done poorly, a few years ago the Russian Olympic committee beckoned to two disaffected foreign athletes, Ahn Hyun Soo, a South Korean speed skater, and Victor Wild, an Alpine Snowboarder, to migrate to Russia and enjoy the training benefits they could not get in their home countries.
Then almost like magic, Hyun Soo (now Viktor Ahn) and West (now Victor Ivan) were outfitted with Russian citizenships and made part of the Russian Olympic team in Sochi. Ahn repaid his new country by winning two gold medals outright and anchoring a team skate for another gold. Meanwhile Ivan was wining two gold medals of his own. Wining a gold medal for mother Russia is not without its compensation. Russia gave each gold medal winner $120,000 and a new Mercedes automobile. By offering the two foreigners training support they couldn’t get at home, Putin and Russia essentially bought five gold medals. These were decisive allowing Russia to claim the games’ most gold medals (13 to the US’s 9) and the most metals (33 to the US’s 28).
This whole affair obviously ticked me off or I wouldn’t be writing about it. But today as I watch Russian troops in thin disguise taking over the Crimea province in the Ukraine, I realized that in the grand scheme buying Olympic medals pales in comparison how Putin and Russia have behaved recently in world affairs. On February 5, 1994, as an incentive for Ukraine to give up it nuclear weapons, Russia, Briton, the US and the Ukraine signed a treaty guaranteeing the territorial integrity of the Ukraine, essentially guaranteeing the protection of its borders. However, with the Russian leaning president of the Ukraine being voted out of office by The Ukrainian parliament after months of protest and then taking refuge in Russia, Putin must have feared what the new anti-Russian Ukrainian government might do in the future. As a result he made his political calculations and crossed his personal Rubicon into the Crimea.
Russia has moved up to two thousand troops into the Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula purportedly to protect its naval base located there. However Russian solders in uniforms with no designations of their origin are operating openly on the streets of Simferopol, the regional capital. The Russian naval base is the home base of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet (think of it as similar to our Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.) and Russia holds lease on it until 2042. With the de-emphasis of its surface navy the base is no longer vital to Russia’s military presence but the history of the area is still a huge source of Russian pride. The Crimea was part of Russia until 1954 when it gifted the area to the Ukraine as a “gesture of friendship” back when both countries were both part of the big USSR happy family. The majority of the area’s population is Russian speaking with strong Russian ties.
While his ultimate goals are still unclear, Putin is apparently is putting a high premium on insuring that the new Ukrainian government doesn’t kick his naval forces out of the country. He is playing a dangerous game, flaunting international law while not engaging in an all out invasion which could ultimately mean war with the US and Briton since both countries are committed by treaty to protect Ukraine’s borders. He is backing up his power play with force of 150,000 performing “unrelated” military maneuvers just on the other side the Russian border. The Russian parliament has rubber stamped his request to be able to send the Russian military into the Ukraine should he identify a need to do so. Putin is chess player and all of this was carefully planned and orchestrated. He knows no one wants war and I believe he is using this fact to his advantage by flexing his military muscle to try to force a negotiated settlement amenable to Russian interests.
However, some believe that Putin’s goals may be more ambitious and that he be planning to start a civil war in Ukraine which could lead to Russian military intervention. Ethic Russian speakers with strong Russian ties make up 13% of the Ukrainian population, the largest majority in the country. Most of them are concentrated in the eastern and southern areas of the country near the Russian border. It would be relatively easy for Russia to stir this segment of the population into rebellion resulting in violent demonstrations. Then when the Ukrainian government moves in to deal with those demonstrations, Putin could move his troops his troops across the border in as he did in Georgia using the flimsy excuse that he is attempting to protect ethnic Russians from Ukrainian oppression. Should the Ukrainian military resist, Putin then could use that as an excuse for taking over the entire country militarily. However, it is hard to believe that the US and its NATO allies would stand by without a military response. Then all hell would break loose. That is what make the current situation so dangerous.
Then you can add to this current outrage the fact that Russia provides only outside support to the two biggest renegade states on earth, Syria and Iraq. With many of its former client states and even countries that were member states of the old USSR turning against Russia and giving them a cold shoulder, Putin and Russia seemed determined to ensure that two of the few friends they have left survive.
Russia has long provided material and technical assistance to Iran’s nuclear programs. Russia continues to insist that it has not been supporting Iran’s drive to develop ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons. However, given Russia’s corrupt economic system and weak regulatory environment, Russian companies and individuals are likely to have made major contributions to Iran’s missile program. So in large part we have Russia to thank for making possible one of the world’s most chilling prospects, a nuclear armed Iran.
Of course we also have Russia and Putin to thank for the existence of one of the most brutal dictatorships in the world, that of Bashar Hafez al-Assad of Syria. While grimly attempting to stay in power, al-Assad has used every brutal means at his disposal in attempt to fight off the opposition ultimately resulting a civil war that has claim well over 100,000 people. As many as four million Syrians have also sought refuge in neighboring countries. Al-Assad forces regularly torture captured individuals to death and, in a new low even for al-Assad, his forces used chemical weapons on their own people killing 1,100 – many of them innocent women and children. It well understood by all those involved that al-Assad’s government would soon crumble without the monetary and political support provided by Putin’s government. Russia continues to prop up one of the most brutal dictators in recent history for their own selfish reasons.
There has been hope that Putin’s Russia was on the road to being a good world citizen, ready to participate as one of the world’s economic leaders. The G7 became the G8 with Russia as it as its newest member. Russia was to even chosen to host the next G8 summit in June in their Olympic city of Sochi. If Putin’s continuing support of the two rogue states of Iran and Syria didn’t cast doubts on Russia’s readiness to reassume a share of world leadership, Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine made it clear that Russia is not the responsible democracy we had been lead to believe. Consequently, regarding Russia Ukrainian gamble, the United State together with its NATO allies should make it clear to Putin that, using an old Southern expression, “that dog won’t hunt”!
Short of a full fledged Russian invasion of the Ukraine, the military option should be held in reserve, but all of the other options available to the United States, NATO and the European Union should be on the table and used in quick succession until Putin understands that his gamble will not pay off. France, Great Briton and the US have already stated they are pulling out of preparatory talks for the G8 summit in Sochi and their outright cancellations for the summit itself can’t be far behind. However, like any good chess player, Putin has already taken that into consideration and he has determined that he was willing to accept that loss to gain his other objectives. The only way to make this pragmatic chess player retreat is to confront him with an ever increasing set of penalties until he finally determines his objectives are not worth the costs.
If the crisis is not bought to a swift conclusion, Russia should be expelled outright from the G8 organization. In parallel the US and its allies could impose on other nations to label Russia an outlaw nation and in list their help to put diplomatic pressure on Putin. Russia can be backed into a diplomatic dog house with no real power to affect world events. That would be a real blow to Putin’s dreams of a making Russia a major player on the world stage.
Minor trade sanctions should be then imposed and then ratcheted up quickly until the Russian economy begins to suffer and its citizens become made aware that they will personally have to pay the price for Putin’s decisions. Presently Russia and the United States engage in two way trade worth $38 billion a year. The US makes up only a small percentage of Russia’s overall trade volume, but heavy US sanctions would hurt the Russians much worse than it would hurt the US economy. The major sanctions threat comes from the European Union. Russia is the EU’s third biggest trading partner, but the EU is tops on Russia’s trading partner list. Heavy trade sanctions would not help Europe’s recovering economy, but they would hurt Russia’s economy far worse. Already the ruble is losing value. However, this would be tricky. Europe relies on Russian natural gas and other products. It would require the US to negotiate a solid common front with our European allies. The US and its allies throughout the world could also freeze the foreign bank accounts of the Russian Government and Russian individuals. Hitting rich Russians in the pocketbook would send a strong message.
We should also rethink our decision to discontinue our efforts to build missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic. The construction was put on hold when Putin objected strongly and efforts were then underway to strengthen US Russian relations. If Russia cannot be trusted to be a reliable citizen of the world, then perhaps those sites are needed after all. There are probably other non-military options available to the US and its allies in this situation that I am missing here, but again no non-military options should be off the table if it will make Putin think twice about further involvement in the Ukraine.
However, diplomatic and economic sanctions are not the only tools in the allies’ tool belt. No one wants an all out war, but sometimes it is necessary to convince a belligerent country that there are military as well as diplomatic and economic consequences that can result form their bad behavior. Russia military is far stronger than its Ukrainian counterpart, but it is but a shadow of the military machine of the USSR’s glory days. NATO’s forces were developed to counter the threat from the USSR and while its forces have been reduced following the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is still more than capable of taking on Russia military in a conventional war. The US alone can project tremendous military strength anywhere in the world with only a few days notice. Should this crisis continue to escalate, Putin needs to be reminded of these unpleasant facts. Mobilization of NATO forces throughout Europe and the stationing of a couple of US carrier groups in the eastern Mediterranean Sea should send him an ample reminder. If that not sufficient to deter Putin, perhaps sending our naval forces into the Black Sea at his doorstep as we did during Russia’s invasion of Georgia will get his attention.
Most of all, in this country the political factions should put down petty feuding in the face of this very real outside threat and unite behind a unified message to Russia and the rest of the world. Enough with the stupid remarks made by a Democratic representative that she understands where Russia was coming from. Enough of Republican criticism of the President for not being credible when he drew past red lines in the sand. Politics must indeed stop at our borders because Putin will only hear and heed our message if spoken in a strong and completely unified voice.