The Free Press, Mankato, MN

March 6, 2014

Our View: Russia's preferred isolation

Why It Matters: Russia's occupation of the Crimean Peninsula is part of a futile effort to reverse history.

The Mankato Free Press

---- — One of the enduring issues of Russian identity is Europe itself. To what extent is Russia European, and to what extent is it simply, uniquely, Russian?

The two Romanov autocrats to whom history has applied the appellation “the Great,” Peter and Catherine, pushed the Colossus of the North toward the West. But most of Russian history leans the other way with its involvement with the outside world aimed largely at preserving a more profound isolation.

Vladimir Putin in recent days put himself squarely in the latter camp. His actions in the wake of the Ukrainian overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych appear rooted in his desire to reverse the dismantling of the Soviet empire more than two decades ago.

Ukraine became an formally independent country when the Soviet Union disintegrated, but it has struggled to assert that independence from Russia. The West has been of little help in that; unlike the Baltic states, which, like Ukraine, were part of the U.S.S.R., Ukraine has not been admitted to NATO or to the European Union.

That, in large part, stems from a recognition of Russia’s longstanding (and legitimate) strategic interest in Ukraine, and in particular the Crimean Peninsula, which has been soaked in Russian blood for centuries. Crimea’s access to the Black Sea — Russia’s sole year-round ocean outlet, constricted though it is — has always been deemed vital to the Kremlin.

Putin has occupied Crimea because he sees it as vital to Russian interests and because he can. He will, if the opportunity presents itself, strip other pieces off Ukraine simply because a weak Ukraine is inevitably more subservient to Moscow. His ultimate goal, no doubt, is to reabsorb Ukraine in its entirety.

The West, as evidenced by its unwillingness over the years to take in Ukraine, isn’t going to go to war for it. But the Kiev uprising has aroused the West’s sympathy, and Putin’s exploitation of the political disruption has aroused the West’s contempt.

The West can, and should, punish Putin economically. The global markets have already begun that process. Formal governmental moves, such as expelling Moscow from the Group of Eight economic powers, and even exclusion from the global banking system, should follow. Russia’s economy is not equipped to handle such isolation.

Putin appears to yearn for the days of the Cold War. He should be careful of what he wishes for.