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GUEST COMMENTARY: The U.S. has limited options in the Russia-Ukraine arena

Friday, April 4, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to be doing his best to see that the world moves back into the future.

He is a man of contradictory beliefs, saying he seeks no revival of the Soviet Union and yet he draws upon the ghost of an empire as a model for the Russia of the future.

The crisis in Ukraine isn't a Hollywood movie though Putin apparently thinks he's living in one. It can't be navigated through a pre-planned choreography.

Perhaps "all the world's a stage," but the United States is no longer interested in playing the all-powerful director.

To figure out this crisis, we need to understand the actors: Putin, the Ukraine and Crimea.

First, Putin. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, privately told President Obama that after speaking with Mr. Putin she thought he was "in another world."

"He's not delusional, but he's inhabiting a Russia of the past a version of the past that he has created," said Fiona Hill, the top intelligence officer on Russia during George W. Bush's presidency. "His present is defined by it, and there is no coherent vision of the future."

Michael McFaul, who served as a special assistant to Obama at the National Security Council, describes Putin from the inside: Putin returned to power in 2012 "at a time when tens of thousands of Russians were protesting against falsified elections, and more generally, against unaccountable government.

"Mr. Putin was especially angry at the young, educated and wealthy protesters in Moscow who did not appreciate that he (in his view) had made them rich. So he pivoted backward, instituting restrictions on independent behavior, reminiscent of Soviet days. He attacked independent media, arrested demonstrators and demanded that the wealthy bring their riches home.

"In addition to more autocracy, Mr. Putin needed an enemy — the United States — to strengthen his legitimacy. His propagandists rolled out clips on American imperialism, immoral practices and alleged plans to overthrow the Putin government."

It's important to remember that Putin does not see the U.S. as weak. In an interview with Patt Morrison of the Los Angeles Times, McFaul, who left Moscow last month after two years as U.S. ambassador to the Russian Federation, said: "I didn't get the impression of a guy who thought we were weak. He assigned all kinds of power to the United States. He believes we were responsible for what happened in Tunisia that sparked the Arab Spring. ... I think Putin looks at the United States as a rather threatening force around the world and to Russia."

Then there's the Ukraine. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, writing in The Washington Post earlier this month, gave a crash course in Ukrainian history: "The West must understand that, to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country. Ukraine has been part of Russia for centuries, and their histories were intertwined before then.

"Ukraine has been independent for only 23 years; it had previously been under some kind of foreign rule since the 14th century. Not surprisingly, its leaders have not learned the art of compromise, even less of historical perspective."

Further, Ukraine is economically dependent on Russia. Half the raw materials it imports and half the gas it consumes — discounted a third below market price — come from Russia.

Finally, Crimea. Sixty percent of the population is Russian. Crimea became part of Ukraine after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union only because of a symbolic gesture in 1954. As part of a celebration of a 300-year-old Russian agreement with the Cossacks, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, Ukrainian by birth, transferred Crimea's administrative status from the Russian Soviet subunit to the Ukrainian Soviet subunit.

And Sevastopol was built by Catherine the Great as a major base for the Russian Navy; it's still the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.

So what moves can the United States make? Objectively, our options are limited. While the comments of many conservatives and their pundits sound like so much ideological stepping on their own toes, Obama most accurately assessed the situation.

"Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors — not out of strength, but out of weakness," Obama said, adding, "It would be dishonest to suggest there is a simple solution to what has already taken place in Crimea."

Here's the point: "Where our own self-defense may not be involved, we may not act militarily," Obama said, but we still must "steadily push against those forces which would violate those principles and ideas we care about."

For now, the U.S. must continue to rally the Europeans to stand together against Putin's dream of rebuilding the lost Soviet empire.

Donna Brazile is a senior Democratic strategist, a political commentator and contributor to CNN and ABC News. Her column is distributed by United Feature Syndicate.


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