Ukrainian crisis prompts US gloom

Riot policemen stand guard in front of the regional administration in Donetsk, Ukraine, on 3 March 2014 Image copyright AFP
Image caption Riots in the streets of Ukraine have escalated in recent days amid ongoing political turmoil

A few weeks ago, talk about Ukraine revolved around whether the US public was only interested in that country's turmoil because of the "disaster porn" photos the protests generated.

"Ukraine looks like a movie set, like World War II, like the apocalypse," Sarah Kendzior wrote in Politico. "We seem to get off on destruction as a visual experience, removed from participation and consequence."

Now, as the situation has morphed into a war of words between world powers, US "participation and consequence" seem very real.

Photos of the Crimean peninsula have replaced those from the capital city of Kiev. The fire and ice of the furious protests have been supplanted by the olive drab and grey of Russian soldiers and tanks barricading streets and patrolling city blocks.

Commentary in the US has changed, as well. The triumphant cries of support for the Kiev protesters have turned to sombre warnings that the Russian "bear" is back - and sharp criticism for an Obama administration that is alleged to have been ill-prepared to deal with the new reality.

'Nightmare scenario'

"A Crimean conflict has long been the nightmare scenario in the former Soviet Union and now represents the gravest crisis in Europe since the end of the Cold War," writes Charles King in the New York Times.

The region's mix of ethnicities and bloody history, he reasons, make it a geopolitical flashpoint.

By justifying his intervention as support for the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin "has made ethnic nationalism a defining element of foreign policy".

"The future of Ukraine is now no longer about Kiev's Independence Square, democracy in Ukraine, or European integration. It is about how to preserve a vision of Europe - and, indeed, of the world - where countries give up the idea that people who speak a language we understand are the only ones worth protecting."

The New Yorker's David Remnick worries about the implications of this Russian linguistic nationalism.

"If this is the logic of the Russian invasion, the military incursion is unlikely to stop in Crimea: nearly all of eastern Ukraine is Russian-speaking," he writes.

"Russia defines its interests far beyond its Black Sea fleet and the Crimean peninsula."

The National Review's John Fund sees a more materialistic motivation for Mr Putin's actions: energy.

"With Crimea under his control, he can build a new pipeline to Western Europe, which gets one-third of its natural gas from Russia," he writes.

"With this pipeline in place, which will be routed around Ukraine, Putin will hold Ukraine in a stranglehold: He can credibly threaten to turn off the current pipeline, which runs through and also supplies Ukraine, without endangering sales to Western Europe."

'Exceedingly hesitant'

Energy is also on the mind of the Wall Street Journal's Matthew Kaminski. He calls the talk of ethnic Russian identity a "sideshow struggle" that hides a larger Ukrainian power play.

"Crimea was the appetizer," he writes. "The real prize for Vladimir Putin is likely to be eastern Ukraine. Without this vast region of coalmines and factories, the Kremlin strongman won't be able to achieve his goal of either controlling, destabilizing or splitting Ukraine. Otherwise the takeover of the country's southern peninsula hardly seems worth the trouble."

Image copyright AFP
Image caption US President Barack and other Western leaders have been called on to intervene in the Ukraine

Former US state department counsellor Eliot A Cohen says the West must react forcefully: "Absent a severe penalty - one that inflicts pain where Putin can feel it, to include Russia's economy and his personal wealth and control of that country - the lesson learned will be, 'You can get away with it'."

What's more, he argues, a failure to respond will send a message to other world powers: "If Russia can rip off a limb with impunity, why can't China do the same with the Senkaku Islands?"

Economic sanctions and tough talk aren't enough, writes Tom Rogan for the National Review. The US should fly troops into Kiev or move an aircraft carrier into the Eastern Mediterranean, and start the process of kicking Russia out of the G-8 club of economic powers.

Barack Obama has always focused on his "liberal domestic policy agenda" and put foreign policy on the "back-burner", writes Guy Benson, senior political editor for the conservative website Townhall.com.

"This administration has seemed determined to present itself as the anti-Bush, exceedingly hesitant to exercise American hard power, and focused on restoring America's image in the world by adopting a more thoughtful global posture," he continues.

What Mr Obama and his fellow Democrats have missed, he says, is an understanding of Mr Putin's cold nature.

Cynical and calculating

For a sense of how cynical and calculating Mr Putin has been in advancing his interests while stifling ours, re-read his New York Times op-ed on Syria, published on 11 September of last year.

As Obama pondered strikes against the Moscow-backed and -armed Assad regime, Putin averred that military action required "consensus" within the international community. That doctrine of restraint and consensus plainly didn't apply to Russia when it invaded Georgia, however, and it's been discarded again in Crimea.

The Weekly Standard's William Kristol also says Mr Putin learned a lesson from Syria's Bashar al-Assad about the effectiveness of Western threats.

"One suspects that President Putin isn't very worried about affirmations of future costs by the international community," he writes. "He's seen Bashar al-Assad survive similar affirmations. Putin, like Assad, understands actions, not affirmations."

The condemnation of Mr Obama's Ukrainian policy is not universal, however.

One prominent supporter is the Washington Post's David Ignatius, who sees the president's caution as a good thing. Why interrupt Mr Putin, he asks, when the Russian leader is digging himself into a hole?

'Horrendous scenario'

"Vladimir Putin has made a mistake invading Crimea, escalating a crisis for Russia that has been brewing for many months," he writes.

"It might have been beneficial if President Obama could have dissuaded him from this error. But Putin's move into Crimea appeared to spring from a deeper misjudgement about the reversibility of the process that led to the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. The further Russia wades into this revanchist strategy, the worse its troubles will become."

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Pro-Russian activists have taken to the streets in Odessa as military forces threaten action

He concludes: "There are many valid criticisms to be made of Obama's foreign policy, especially in Syria, but the notion that Putin's attack is somehow the United States' fault is perverse."

Although it is difficult to avoid playing the blame game at this juncture, the real winners and losers in Ukraine will take much longer to sort out. The scenes of conflict from Kiev are now a memory, but the flames could be rekindled again - fracturing one of Europe's most populous nations in a bloody civil war.

"Just a few days ago, this horrendous scenario of invasion and war, no matter how limited, seemed the farthest thing from nearly everyone's mind in either Ukraine or Russia, much less the West," writes the New Yorker's Remnick. "Putin's reaction exceeded our worst expectations. These next days and weeks in Ukraine are bound to be frightening, and worse. There is not only the threat of widening Russian military force. The new Ukrainian leadership is worse than weak. It is unstable."

Writers and pundits have been quick to offer advice and insight into the current conflict.

Sadly, however, it seems that the most likely routes lead to further escalation and more death.