During the Winter Olympics, Russian President Vladimir Putin labored to present an image of a global leader who was many things — calm, decisive and even a little playful.
A week after the closing of the Sochi games, however, the world got a picture of the real Putin — cold, authoritarian and imperial.
In a move reminiscent of the former Soviet Union, Russian troops on Saturday swarmed the major byways of the Crimean peninsula, seized control of government buildings and the main airport and commandeered all major communication centers. By Sunday, according to the White House, Russian troops had complete operational control of the peninsula. In addition, more Russian troops were being sent to the region.
Adding to the tensions are reports that Russian troops have issued an ultimatum to Ukraine to hand over two of its warships in the region. Although Moscow denies the claim, Ukraine’s acting president has accused Russia of “piracy.”
The result is a tense situation that has brought relations between the West and the Kremlin to perhaps their lowest point since the Cold War.
Cooler heads must prevail before this explosive confrontation escalates, possibly resulting in further attempts by Moscow to seize pro-Russian Ukrainian territory and triggering a potential conflict between Russian and Ukrainian forces.
Secretary of State John Kerry planned to be in Kiev today in hopes of defusing the situation. The Obama administration was putting together a package of economic relief resources for Ukraine. But as yet Western efforts to pressure Russia to reverse course have floundered. If anything, Russia appears to have maintained the upper hand, both militarily and diplomatically.
Russia’s bonds to Crimea are no secret. The area is very much pro-Russian and serves as a vital base for the Russian Navy. During the Ukrainian presidential election four years ago, the opposition lost in most of these areas, while winning in all of the nation’s western provinces, the same areas that are now appealing for more economic and political ties with Europe. The areas to the south and southeast have pressed to maintain connections with Russia.