Dan Simpson: Obama should talk to Putin offstage

The Ukraine crisis too will pass if cooler heads prevail

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The options said to be under consideration by President Barack Obama and other officials in Washington in response to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin’s rapid occupation of Crimea seem to fall mostly in the category of America’s holding its breath and turning blue.

War against Russia, the ultimate U.S. intervention in European affairs, seems, blessedly, to be “out.” America’s armed forces are thoroughly worn out after eight years in Iraq and 13 years in Afghanistan. The American people are tired of fighting and paying for wars since 2001 and spending huge chunks of taxpayer money to build roads, bridges and schools in Afghanistan and Iraq rather than in the United States.

There is also the vague possibility that some of the geniuses in Washington have heard of how the British and their allies incurred nearly 300,000 dead fighting the Russians in Crimea in an 1853-1856 war that included the Charge of the Light Brigade. Maybe South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who said Sunday that the United States should take strong steps to isolate Russia, actually likes to see America in futile, suicidal struggles. The United States fighting Russia in Crimea would be the equivalent of Russian forces fighting us in northern Virginia.

Another bright idea being floated in the capital of the U.S. empire and in the media is that Mr. Obama should boycott the meeting of the G-8 countries scheduled for June 4-5 in Sochi, Russia, the venue of the just-completed Winter Games. Mr. Obama didn’t attend the games, either, passing up the opportunity to join Chinese President Xi Jinping there and sit with Mr. Putin to discuss in a reasonably friendly environment some of the questions pending between Russia and the United States.

Among these questions, in addition to the trouble stewing in Ukraine, are weighty issues such as the Iran nuclear and economic sanctions negotiations, which include China, Russia and the United States; the civil war in Syria, where Russia and the United States risk finding themselves in a proxy war; and the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which are of great interest to both countries given their importance to regional and world peace as well as relations between Muslim nations and the rest of the world. On part of that last issue, Russia and the United States are even on the same side. Both have “Islamist terrorists” to contend with.

As for having Mr. Obama boycott the Sochi G-8 meeting, first of all, this would annoy Mr. Putin and Russia, for what that’s worth. Second, the G-8, made up of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Britain, Russia and the United States, is constituted to improve international coordination on critical economic issues. Since when have we stopped needing that? Is it since the economic situation at home and in the world has improved so enormously?

As for trying to get the other members of the G-8 to either boycott the Sochi meeting or kick Russia out of the G-8, the brilliance of that idea is diminished substantially by the fact that Russia supplies European Union countries with a third of their natural gas. And it’s winter. It is thus difficult to imagine that the other G-8 countries would find that American idea to have much appeal. And if Americans don’t find a repeat of the Crimean War a fun idea, it is hard to imagine how much less attraction it would hold for the Europeans.

The real question is, how much longer must we put up with Mr. Obama’s obvious distaste for trying to work with foreign leaders who don’t love him and don’t play basketball? We knew he wouldn’t like Xi Jinping when he spent two days with him in California last year. We also know that Mr. Putin is heavy going for almost anyone. But the president of the United States does not have the luxury of spending his time entirely with people who are either awed by him or prepared to pretend that they are.

What needs to be done? First, the Ukrainians — all sides, the eastern ones, the western ones, those who live on both sides of the Dnieper River, the Ukrainian speakers, the Russian speakers, the Muslim Tatars, the Orthodox, the Uniates — need to be told that they don’t get one nickel more in aid from anyone until they stop fighting with each other and visibly clean up corruption in their country. Nearly as much ($70 billion) went missing from Ukraine’s tills during the three-year presidency of Viktor F. Yanukovych as Ukraine’s overall debt of $75 billion.

Second — quietly, quietly — Mr. Obama, alone, as well as other Western leaders, such as Germany’s Angela Merkel, need to tell Mr. Putin that, while we appreciate his need to watch out for Russian-speakers and Russian citizens in Crimea, the sooner he gets his troops out of there the better off Russia and he will be. He can keep his base in Sevastopol and the Black Sea fleet because of the catastrophic unemployment that would result in Crimea if he pulled those assets out.

There was a time when America was supposed to maintain general peace, quiet and order among its less powerful allies, and the Soviet Union was supposed to keep calm among its clients, although no one said so. That was why the Cold War in Europe never erupted into hot war, even when the USSR stomped on Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 and put out various opposition brushfires at different times in East Germany, Poland and other Warsaw Pact states. No one regrets the passage of that status quo.

What we all need now is for Ukraine to work out its internal political difficulties so it can concentrate on honest economic development, and for Mr. Putin to march his forces back out of Ukraine. In that sense, the revealed excesses of the exiled Mr. Yanukovych — by the way, a democratically elected president — and his resultant downfall, could yet produce a better situation in Ukraine and between Russia, the United States and the EU.

Spring continues to follow winter, even in Central Europe.

Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (dsimpson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1976).


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