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Vladimir Putin Outmaneuvers the U.S. Yet Again

Russian President Vladimir Putin looks at a monument of Nobel Prize-winning author Alexander Solzhenitsyn in Moscow. (Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP)

Don’t look now, but Vladimir Putin has racked up another win in his latest skirmish with the West.

The victory took place Nov. 25 in the Kerch Strait, the narrow strip of water separating the disputed Crimean Peninsula from the Russian mainland to the east. It occurred when the Russian coast guard fired on and seized three Ukrainian naval vessels. As always, the details are in dispute, with the Ukrainians claiming that their boats informed the Russians about their plans to navigate the strait but received no reply and Russia saying the opposite.

But there’s no doubt as to the result. By briefly closing the strait, Russia has demonstrated that it can restrict access at will to roughly half the Ukrainian coastline that lies within the Sea of Azov, including the economically vital ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk.  Although Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko immediately called for Western intervention, it also demonstrated that there is little NATO can do in response.

While expressing “full support” for Ukraine, the alliance said nothing about Poroshenko’s request that NATO ships force their way through the Kerch Strait in defiance of the blockade. The same goes for Ukraine’s call to Turkey to close off Russian naval access to the Dardanelles, the equally narrow body of water connecting the Black Sea with the Mediterranean.  Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s only response was an offer to mediate.

So while Poroshenko declared that “the only language that Putin understands is the solidarity of the Western world,” it appears that the West is solidly behind a cautious policy of non-interference.

It’s an astonishing reversal from the heady days of early 2014 when it was Russia that was at the point of being cut off. Although the corporate media wanted Western readers to think that the “Automaidan” revolution then underway in Kiev was an attempt to cast off the Russian yoke, it was really about something altogether different: NATO’s unrelenting drive to the east and its clear intention of seizing Russia’s historic naval base in the southern Crimean port of Sebastopol.

Sebastopol, Russia’s main warm-water outlet since 1783, had long been a thorn in the side of U.S.-backed Ukrainian nationalists. After Nikita Khrushchev transferred the largely Russian-speaking Crimea to Ukraine in 1954, the port wound up in Ukrainian hands after that country gained independence in 1991. Moscow continued to operate the base under a long-term lease, but there was no doubt that the arrangement would come to an end once NATO accepted Ukraine’s bid for membership, as Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and John McCain all urged it to in 2008. Conceivably, Russia could have made up for the loss by expanding naval operations in Novorossiysk, located on the Black Sea some 200 miles to the east. But not only would an expansion project have been long and expensive, but Novorossiysk is distinctly less attractive due to frequent storms and “bora” winds that, in bad weather, force ships to leave the port and shelter on the high seas.

The loss of Sebastopol would thus have been a major blow. As a Forbes magazine analyst wrote in 2014: “Put simply, without a naval base in Crimea, Russia is finished as a global military power.”

That was the expected outcome as a U.S.-backed coup sent Ukraine’s legally elected president, Viktor Yanukovych, packing in February 2014 and installed a fiercely anti-Russian government in his place. Gone were the days when Russia could use its Black Sea Fleet to pressure U.S. allies such as Georgia, which also borders on the Black Sea and which found itself under a Russian blockade during a brief war in 2008.  The days when Russia could use its Black Sea Fleet to shore up the Bashar al-Assad’s besieged government in Syria were waning as well. U.S.-NATO leverage was expanding from the Caucasus to the Levant.

Or so it seemed. But then, amid the upsurge in Kiev, Putin neatly detached Crimea from Ukraine and added it to Russia in an operation the New York Times described as “breathtaking and so far apparently unstoppable.” Warned Putin: “NATO ships would have ended up in the city of Russian navy glory, Sevastopol.” But once annexation was complete, he was able to crow: “After a long, hard and exhaustive journey at sea, Crimea and Sevastopol are returning to their home harbor, to the native shores, to the home port, to Russia!” In July 1942, Hitler’s forces finally succeeded in taking Sebastopol after 250 days of fierce fighting. Seven decades later, America’s own drang nach osten, or drive to the East, had come up short.

After years of Ukrainian harassment, Russia seized the opportunity to pour resources into Sebastopol and beef up naval operations. It expanded its defense shield “over the whole of the Black Sea with a potent combination of supersonic anti-ship missiles having a range of 600 kilometers [and] advanced warplanes,” according to one analysis. It installed its newest surface-to-air S-400 missile system and announced plans to station advanced Podsolnukh (“Sunflower”) radar, supposedly capable of detecting F-22 and F-35 stealth aircraft. It doubled the number of soldiers stationed on the peninsula, quintupled the number of fighter jets, and better than tripled the number of ships. With cargo traffic to Berdyansk and Mariupol reportedly cut in half due to Russian restrictions, the result is a profound shift in the balance of economic and military power.

This is not the first time Putin has turned tables on his tormenters.  He’s done it before, most notably in Syria in September 2015 when, to American anger and dismay, he sent warplanes to shore up the Assad government when it seemed to wobble after years of U.S. and Saudi-sponsored jihad.

Which leads to a question: Why is the Russian president so good at one-upping his Western opponents? Is it because he plays chess while Americans play checkers, as Ted Cruz once put it? Because he’s super smart?

The answer is, yes, Putin is indeed a clever operator. But that’s not all. He also has the advantage of fighting on his own turf against an empire that is over-extended militarily and enervated intellectually. In Ukraine, the Obama administration thought it could knock over a regime it deemed hostile merely by injecting some $5 billion in support of pro-U.S. forces. (See speech by former Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland beginning at 7:40). But as in Libya in 2011, it was unprepared for what regime change would bring, in this case a revolt by eastern Russophones outraged by a nationalist takeover in which neo-fascist forces were clearly in the lead—as even the cheerleaders at the New York Times were forced to admit. Although Western media quickly denounced the takeover as nothing less than an assault on “the liberal world order,” they forgot that the U.S. had violated the same order in Kiev by helping to drive out a legally elected head of state.

They forgot other things too. One is that the takeover in Crimea enjoyed overwhelming popular support, with 97 percent voting in favor in a referendum marked by an 80-percent turnout. (A poll a year later found that 82 percent still favored annexation, with only four percent opposed.) Another is that driving Russophones into the arms of Moscow would present Putin with a priceless opportunity to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and strengthen his position on the Black Sea.

It was an offer he couldn’t refuse. But this leads to another question: is Putin’s win in the Kerch Strait a positive development? After all, he’s an authoritarian whose regime is characterized by massive corruption and decreasing room for dissent. Is there any reason to cheer now that he’s tightened his grip on the Black Sea?

There isn’t. But there is reason to cheer that an even greater strong man—the American empire—has stumbled. In one arena after another, the U.S. has teamed up with the most dangerous forces—neo-Nazis in Ukraine, Wahhabist jihadis in the Middle East, out-and-out fascists like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, etc.—in an effort to maintain its increasingly tenuous position as global hegemon. The more desperate the effort grows, the more threatening it becomes to anyone opposing U.S. policies. As a captured raider supposedly told Alexander the Great, “Because I do it with a small boat, I am called a pirate and a thief. You, with a great navy, molest the world and are called an emperor.”

U.S. diktat dwarfs anything exercised by Russia. So it’s worth at least a small round of applause that the global bully has been checked.

Daniel Lazare
Daniel Lazare is the author of three books on U.S. politics, among them "The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution is Paralyzing Democracy" (Harcourt Brace, 1996). He has written for a wide variety of…
Daniel Lazare

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