Unintended Consequence of Putin’s Crimea Folly: Obama and Europe Are Closer Together

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Russian President Vladimir Putin walks past U.S. President Barack Obama, June 17, 2013.Credit: AP

The crisis in Crimea has redrawn attention to Winston Churchill’s famous 1946 “Sinews of Peace” speech in Fulton, Missouri in which he presaged the Cold War and famously coined the term “Iron Curtain”. Less acknowledged is the fact that those farsighted warnings were Churchill’s public reversal and even repentance over his own role in conceding Eastern Europe to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin only a year before.

This was in the triumvirate summit of Churchill, Stalin and Franklin Roosevelt held in February 1945 in the sea side town of Yalta, also in Crimea, less than an hour’s drive from the current Russian navy bases at Sevastopol. In exchange for empty promises to hold “free and democratic elections” in post-war Poland, Roosevelt and Churchill rewarded Stalin with large chunks of Polish territory to be annexed to Soviet Ukraine and with de facto recognition of a Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.

In an age when the Munich agreement is repeatedly cited as model of infamy and Churchill as a paragon of resilience and prescience, it is worthwhile recalling his words to cabinet colleagues upon his return from Yalta: “Poor Neville Chamberlain believed he could trust Hitler. He was wrong. But I don't think I'm wrong about Stalin.”

In subsequent years in Eastern Europe, Yalta became synonymous with Munich, the concessions to Moscow were dubbed “The Western betrayal” and Churchill’s willingness to put his trust in Stalin’s “word” in order to avoid conflict, as he then told Parliament, was compared – not only in Warsaw and Prague but in Eisenhower’s Washington as well - to Chamberlain’s “appeasement” of Hitler at Munich. But Churchill has become such an enduring and popular icon in Western culture that no one has yet to accuse president Obama of responding to Vladimir Putin’s assault on Crimea like “Churchill at Yalta.”

And while most of Churchill’s not insignificant faults and failings have been largely expunged from his public legacy, Obama seems to be suffering from an opposite trend, as far as his own PR is concerned: his persistently low approval ratings and dismal standing in the polls are exerting a decisive influence on the public’s perception of his handling of the Crimea crisis, notwithstanding the fact that his actions don’t dramatically stray from those urged by his critics. All the polls suggest that Americans overwhelmingly reject any physical entanglement in the Ukraine but nonetheless strongly support punitive economic sanctions on Moscow. This is exactly what Obama has been doing, but he is nonetheless being perceived as weak, a victim of his vacillations in the past – most notably on Syria – and widespread expectations that they will recur.

In this regard, Obama’s relatively successful visit to Europe is unlikely to change prevailing perceptions. Public opinion tends to register only dramatic, earth-moving international developments and people are inclined to focus more on spicy human interest than on gradual diplomatic developments, significant as they may be. The inebriated Secret Service agent who passed out in the corridors of a North Sea hotel is likely to garner far more attention that the evolving fortunes of the NATO alliance or the recalibrated character of America’s historic ties to Europe.

But these are among the unintended consequences of Putin’s foolhardy aggression in Crimea, which are apparently lost on his legions of new fans, who seem to be enamored with his bullying ways, in America and in Israel as well. Not only has a hostile, pro-Western government replaced the hitherto Moscow-compliant regime in Kiev, but the shock and awe generated by Putin’s arrogance and belligerency in Crimea has also breathed new life into a hitherto dispirited NATO alliance and the previously unraveling bonds between Washington and various European capitals.

The United States may very well not be what it used to be, as many will agree, but Putin’s moves have reminded many – in Europe, if not in Israel – that Washington remains indispensable and irreplaceable as leader of the West, especially in times of need. Obama may have unwisely neglected Europe and carelessly disappointed Europeans, but fear of Putin, especially in Russian-fearing Eastern Europe, is now imposing on both sides the kind of “reset” that Obama had earlier intended for relations with Putin himself.

This was the main purpose of his speech in Brussels on Wednesday: to recall the century-old blood brotherhood between the two continents, to re-lay the foundations of the shared democratic values that bind them together and to remind his listeners exactly who it is they’re dealing with: a US president who largely shares their liberal, multicultural agenda, who opposed the war in Iraq, as he carefully pointed out, and who speaks their Euro-language way better than any of his wannabe Republican replacements back home.

Such new trans-Atlantic affinity, if it develops, does not necessarily bode well for the current Israeli government. It’s true that the Ukrainian crisis has distracted Obama and put Washington on an emergency footing , but renewed collaboration between Washington and European capitals could arguably lead to greater cooperation between them in nuclear negotiations with Iran as well as peace talks with the Palestinians.

In this context, Secretary of State Kerry’s ongoing efforts to avert a collapse of the peace process could be viewed as an effort to defuse a crisis that could erupt at a distracting and inopportune moment, rather than as a sign of lingering hope that his initiative can still bear fruit. If and when the Ukraine crisis is resolved, the Administration could very well decide to reassess the whole thing from scratch, with enhanced European input this time around.

Until then, Israel’s deafening silence on the Crimea crisis is also raising some eyebrows in Washington. Is this just a case of Jerusalem understandably looking out for its interests by ducking the crossfire between two quarreling superpowers, some are wondering, or does Israel model 2014 actually identify more with an authoritarian regime that forcefully and unilaterally annexes neighboring territory that it claims for itself, while pointedly ignoring Western public opinion and gleefully tormenting the Obama Administration?

Good question, if you ask me. 

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