Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Hold Back on Anointing Putin a Master Player, Doyle McManus

In the May 28, 2014, Los Angeles Times, regular columnist Doyle McManus wrote a piece entitled "Vladimir Putin, master player" in which he literally praised Putin for his deft handling of events in Ukraine.

McManus wrote, in part: "Let us now praise Vladimir Putin.  Yes, Russia's president is a cold-hearted autocrat.  And yes, he rules through a network of nasty oligarchs bent on squeezing profit from their country's oil riches.  If he covets a piece of territory, he's liable to try to grab it.  But he's not a madman.  Putin has played an old-fashioned game of international brinkmanship masterfully -- and so far, he's coming out ahead."

McManus's full piece may be found at: Putin, master player.

I respectfully disagree with McManus's rush to anoint Putin and have responded by email to McManus as follows:

Dear Doyle,

I think you take a very narrow and, frankly, overly conventional and misguided view of events in Ukraine and Vladimir Putin's talents in your column, "Putin, master player," in today's (May 28, 2014) Los Angeles Times.

Too many pundits, including you, look with wonderment and fascination at Putin's actions in reclaiming Crimea and causing instability in Ukraine, and pronounce him, as you have, a "master player."

There is no question he is not a madman although it also seems clear that he is acting with great emotion rather than cold reason in his actions.  But keep in mind the events surrounding his actions.  A Russia leaning, constitutionally elected president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, was pushed out of power by a popular, but hardly universal, uprising in Kiev and the European-leaning western part of a deeply divided Ukraine.  Ukraine, long an integral part of the Soviet Union and literally on the doorstep of Russia itself, appeared not only to be drifting westward toward the EU but there were at least some voices calling for its inclusion in NATO.

Recall the Bay of Pigs, Doyle?  You're old enough, I believe.  I'm 71.  You were also taught the Monroe Doctrine as a small child, I am sure.  Well, it isn't so surprising that Putin, and likely many other Russians, look upon Ukraine in a  way somewhat similar to the way our country has looked upon Cuba, Granada, Central America (e.g., Panama) and even South America.  Having built an Eastern European bloc in part as protection against invasions and other challenges from Central and Western Europe, suddenly Russia faced the possibility that, without an election, Ukraine might be incorporated into NATO, as was Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the latter three small Baltic states done without much attentiveness from the American people.

In any case, while I am NOT defending or justifying Putin's actions, I wouldn't call them the mark of a master player.  Putin likely saw events in Ukraine as a threat to Russian interests and even, with possible NATO expansion, Russian security.  And he acted.  As for Crimea, it appears to have been "gifted" to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic by Russia in 1954, although it remained Russia's key military port on the Black Sea.  Again, that is not to justify Putin's land grab, but it is to put it into a perspective you fail to provide.

Actually, I think President Obama deserves considerable praise for his "handling" of the events in Ukraine.  While the McCain crew (John, Lindsey and now Kelly who has replaced Joe) criticized Obama's response and called for strong American measures including military aid and some Americans even called for a token American military presence, Obama remained cool to any such direct intervention or involvement.  Instead, he remained calm and rallied Western European allies to impose a gradually more severe set of sanctions against Putin and his allies.  News reports indicated that very influential German industrialists were lobbying Merkel not to impose any serious sanctions yet it appears Obama persuaded her to at least strongly consider making such moves.

I share the belief of many that Putin's latest actions pulling back some Russian troops and indicating a willingness to negotiate with the new Ukrainian president are in part due to the threat of increased Western sanctions.  But Putin's actions are not explicable entirely in that way.  The costs to Russia of further Russian territorial expansion into eastern Ukraine, even apart from sanctions, would likely be prohibitive. 

Putin appears to have restored a large measure of Russian influence over Ukraine's Kiev government, which was likely a large part of what he sought.  But, in many respects, isn't such a relationship the "normal" expectation regarding a country on Russia's border that had been part of the Russian empire for centuries, rather than an incredible feat by a "master player?"  I think so. 

As I said, I think Obama deserves considerable credit if you're handing out awards to alleged master players.  Let's be more begrudging before anointing Vladimir Putin a "master player."