Last Friday, Vladimir Putin called Barack Obama to discuss Ukraine, although what was said is different from what was heard. Analyzing the discrepancies between the White House and Kremlin press releases of these calls has become a booming industry and usually you would never guess that the reports are about the same conversation. The White House report mentions “constitutional reform and democratic elections” and Russia pulling back its troops from eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin summary refers to the “rampant extremists” in Kiev and adds the separatist Moldovan region of Transnistria to the conversation in a blatant threat to up the ante once again.
I’m more interested in a word that wasn’t mentioned in either summary: “Crimea.” It’s as if this chunk of sovereign Ukrainian territory — invaded, dominated, and annexed by Putin just weeks ago — has already ceased to be part of the conversation. Just a day earlier, the United Nations General Assembly did what the Security Council could not do due to Russia’s veto there. The GA resolution in defense of the territorial integrity of Ukraine received 100 votes and even intense Russian pressure produced only 10 allies, a predictable rogue’s gallery that included Cuba, Syria, and North Korea. And yet Obama now appears ready to let Putin shift the frame of the negotiations to whether or not Russia will invade more of Ukraine.
A question for Obama is whether or not Crimea was even mentioned in his call with Putin, and if so, in what context. A month ago the Western pundits were full of “surely Putin would never” predictions and many warned not to “corner” Putin, to instead offer him a “face-saving retreat” from Crimea. Putin was not interested in any retreat at all and he now seems to be using this tactic against Obama and the West, offering a face-saving retreat with eastern Ukraine as the new line in the sand. The US and Europe can then claim success if Putin doesn’t invade further and Moscow keeps its trophy, and 2 million Crimeans, without a fight.
Negotiating with another country’s territory as collateral has a long history. The most obvious example is from 1938, when Hitler graciously offered not to take all of Czechoslovakia in exchange for getting the Sudetenland without any complaints from Britain and France. That infamous compromise has another echo this week, as the foreign ministers of Russia and the United States meet to discuss the fate of Ukraine, a move that seems to endorse Putin’s claims that the government in Kiev is illegitimate. By negotiating one on one behind closed doors, Obama has already accepted Putin’s framework. North Korea and Iran also wanted one on one talks with the US, a way of saying nobody else matters. This is not USA vs Russia, it’s the civilized world versus a dictator, and the United Nations vote supported that assessment ten to one.
The mandate for continued pressure on Putin is clear, if only the West has the courage to implement it. Otherwise, just as Czechoslovakia was absent from the “great power” negotiations in 1938, Ukraine’s fledgling government will be relegated to the role of a spectator, a patient under local anesthetic watching helplessly as the surgeons slice away. For the United States to participate in talks is well and good, especially as a signatory of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum guaranteeing Ukraine’s territory. (Also signed by the UK and, of course, by Russia.) But Ukrainian representatives should be present at every step and the people of Ukraine must be kept informed throughout before other nations get too far along in deciding what is in Ukraine’s best interests.
The same protagonists, Putin and Obama, recently starred in a similar face-saving charade. The United States was poised to strike at Bashar al Assad’s murderous regime last year after the Syrian dictator crossed Obama’s “red line” and used chemical weapons against rebel (and civilian) positions. But Putin, Assad’s patron, jumped at a John Kerry remark and proposed teaming up to remove Syria’s chemical weapons. Obama agreed, suddenly leaving Assad more assured of his position than ever and free to continue murdering his people by conventional means, which he has done with great enthusiasm.
There is possibly an even more direct connection between Ukraine and Syria. Putin’s call reached Obama in Saudi Arabia, where it is likely Obama was reaching agreements to arm Syrian rebels. With the tide turning against Assad, Putin may have decided it was time to cash in his Syrian chips in exchange for his new conquest of Crimea. Putin would get what he wants in exchange for something he’s likely to lose anyway and Obama could claim a success by going along. It’s a cynical theory, but it fits the profile of both men. Putin, taking what he can get without opposition, then bluffing with greater threats against eastern Ukraine and Transnistria. Obama, eager to avoid any confrontation and happy to find a way to put a positive spin on his inaction.
But even if what Obama really cares about is unclear, Putin is not as hard to read. He will always push and prod and take as much as he can grab with little or no resistance. He will continue to use every old KGB trick to destabilize Ukraine politically and economically. The Kremlin will continue to support extremist groups and provocateurs of every stripe in Ukraine in order to stir up doubt and strife among the people and the new government. If Putin cannot have Ukraine, he will ruin it. The Russian proposal of greater federalism in Ukraine has a similar agenda, to split the country into smaller, easier to digest pieces. It is a crude plan, but it is also a historically effective one. Against a fragile state with a weakened economy it may well succeed if the West does not come to Ukraine’s aid without hesitation and force Putin to back off.
The United States and Europe are home to hundreds of billions of dollars of Russian assets, public and private. Tell Putin that the moment he crosses the Ukrainian border again, all of these assets will be frozen immediately. A rogue nation should not be allowed to savage a neighbor while still benefiting from the privileges of globalization. Meanwhile, sanctions targeting Putin’s oligarchs and their families abroad where they hide their assets should be escalated at a steady pace. Putin would soon have to choose between letting go of Crimea and alienating his power base at home. He will choose the former, and the sooner the West realizes Putin cannot be appeased, only pushed, the sooner it will happen.
The alternative is grim. Should Putin be allowed to keep Crimea and redraw the map of Europe so easily, he will be rooted even more deeply in power in Russia and continue to be a threat and destabilizing force in the region. Putin must be contained and Crimea must not be abandoned. Obama must state publicly that Ukrainian sovereign territory is non-negotiable, starting with Crimea. Do not fall for any Western attempts to save face, even if Obama waves a piece of paper and declares, “Peace for our time!”
Garry Kasparov is the chairman of the Human Rights Foundation based in New York.