Putin’s Red Lines Go Way Beyond Crimea

The Russian president’s speech was a historic reckoning - and a warning to Western leaders.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Vladimir Putin addresses a joint session of Russian parliament on Crimea in the Kremlin in Moscow, on March 18, 2014.
Vladimir Putin addresses a joint session of Russian parliament on Crimea in the Kremlin in Moscow, on March 18, 2014. Credit: AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

When the Kremlin announced Russia’s recognition of Crimea as an independent state on Monday night, a few still deluded themselves that President Vladimir Putin would make do with that and not go the final mile. Putin didn’t allow that delusion to last for long. In a historic speech on Tuesday, before both houses of the Duma, surrounded by Russian flags with a stone two-headed eagle soaring above him, he re-launched the east bloc-west bloc showdown.

There were two parts to his 46-minute speech, which was disrupted by 32 ovations. In the first, Putin spoke to the hearts of the Russian people. He reminisced on the birth of a nation, right there in the Crimean peninsula, the brave battles of the 19th century and the oppression of the Soviet era, culminating in that fateful night when the USSR disintegrated in 1991 and entire swathes of the homeland were torn away. “The Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders.” What has taken place in Crimea was not an invasion, occupation or annexation, but simple justice of restoring a child to its mother, he said. Later, when he joined the cheering crowds in Red Square, Putin was feted as “collector of Russian lands.”

But in the second part of the speech, he spread his net much wider. It was a detailed reckoning with the Western powers led by the United States, of 23 years of insults that Russia was forced to endure due to its weakness. He pilloried a generation of American and European leaders for interfering in Russia’s, and Ukraine’s, internal affairs, for the aggression of NATO and the European Union and their attempts to undermine the Arab regimes as well. He repeatedly called the West “our partners” with little attempt to conceal any sarcasm. Annexing Crimea isn’t just fixing a historical injustice. Putin made clear he was teaching the West a lesson it should never forget. He presented the ideal regional balance from his point of view; the original post-Soviet plan – “the Commonwealth of Independent States… a single currency, a single economic space, joint armed forces.”

One moment Putin was reassuring that Russia has no intention of attacking Ukraine and the next he was saying the invasion of Crimea was justified due to the persecution of ethnic Russians, just as they are being persecuted now in other Ukrainian cities, including “Kiev, the mother of all Russian cities.” And no one abandons their mother. Russia and Ukraine are “one nation” he made clear - another reassurance to his southern neighbors.

Putin is no great orator, certainly not in the league of Barack Obama, who wasn’t mentioned in the speech. But to borrow a term that Obama has long ago regretted using, Putin laid out his red lines on Tuesday. No to any other neighbors joining NATO (a message that sent shivers through the three Baltic states that are already members of the alliance). No to association agreements with the European Union. And no to any attempts by neighboring governments to establish a national narrative at the expense of Russian-speaking minorities. And needless to say, unlike Obama, Putin has already proven he has no compunction about punishing those who cross his red lines.

The repercussions of Crimea’s annexation will also be felt in the Middle East. The Russian Navy will now enjoy unlimited use of Sevastopol Port on the Black Sea (unlike the previous situation under the Ukraine-Russia agreement which set limits on levels of force). This will provide a boost to Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu’s plans to expand operations in the Mediterranean. Putin’s uncompromising persistence over Crimea is a harbinger of how he will now confront any Western attempt to intervene in Syria, against his ally, Bashar Assad.

Putin’s claims that there are nefarious designs against countries such as Iran should also serve as a warning to those Israeli leaders who still harbor hopes of attacking Iran’s nuclear installations.

For the leaders of the West, those who have so far responded to the conquest of Crimea by issuing a short list of senior Russian officials, not necessarily those closest to the Kremlin, whose assets will be frozen, Putin has a very clear message. This is no longer a case of local or passing strife. The Russian soldiers will not pull back, as they did from Georgia in 2008. This crisis has no diplomatic solution. The only alternative Putin is offering the West is accepting his red lines.

It is still far from clear whether the governments of Britain and Germany, Italy and France, are capable of contemplating losing billions from placing real sanctions on Russia, freezing the oligarchs’ assets, tearing up contracts and cutting themselves off from the natural gas pipeline. Obama certainly can’t force them to do so. But even if they surprise themselves by coming up with such sanctions, Putin has cut off his own retreat route. He can’t cross back over his own red lines.

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