John Armstrong 's Opinion

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Putin 1, Western powers 0, in battle over Ukraine

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Russian leader has shown himself at his manipulative best, leaving the US resorting to empty threats

Putin's military excursion in Crimea has highlighted American hypocrisy, writes John Armstrong. Photo / AP
Putin's military excursion in Crimea has highlighted American hypocrisy, writes John Armstrong. Photo / AP

While there may not be much to like about Vladimir Putin, Russia's President is deserving of respect - the kind you would show if you were in close proximity to a hissing cobra.

The West is so blinkered by its superiority complex born out of victory in the Cold War that Putin has long been categorised - and thus stigmatised - as the dull KGB operative who owed his ascendancy to his country's presidency to having fewer enemies than anyone else and being in the right place at the right time.

The lesson the West has consistently seemed incapable of learning is that while Putin may exhibit all the charm, poise and civility of your average neighbourhood thug, you underestimate him - and more particularly his cunning - at your peril.

In the past week or so, he has been at his manipulative best in dictating the course of the crisis in Crimea while being careful to avoid too much spillover to the rest of Ukraine.

Loath to acknowledge that he has run rings around them, the powers-that-be in Washington, London, Paris and Berlin thus have had added reason to highlight his contempt for fundamental principles of international law. In truth, his tactical triumph in annexing Crimea without a shot being fired in anger has so stunned the West that the degree to which he has outsmarted and outmanoeuvred its leaders has yet to sink in.

In Crimea, he has used what have been termed "salami tactics" in effecting the annexation slice by slice, thereby slowly accustoming everyone to what was going on, rather than mounting some crude all-at-once invasion of Ukrainian territory.

A Huffington Post headline neatly summed things up: Putin has been playing chess while the rest of the world is playing checkers.

The West has taken refuge in the hope that Putin's exploitation of nationalistic fervour in order to play geo-political games is equivalent to walking into a room filled with smokers with a stick of dynamite stuck between your teeth.

Indeed, things could quickly get out of hand in the provinces of eastern Ukraine which contain significant numbers of ethnic Russians.

Military intervention in those provinces would be a far bigger call on Putin's part than the Crimea takeover and would risk Moscow finding itself suddenly locked into an ugly ethnic guerrilla war.

There are signs that with Crimea - which has a far bigger proportion of ethnic Russians than those provinces - effectively under Moscow's control, Putin will take a breather before determining whether to further infringe Ukraine's territorial rights.

Elsewhere, the casualties are mounting, though of a different kind.

Barack Obama has looked and sounded feeble. What little is left by way of positives for him to take from his otherwise flawed and ordinary presidency are now withering on the Ukrainian vine.

His Secretary of State, John Kerry, has been exposed as a blowhard who conveys all the authority of a toothless tiger. (Where is Hillary Clinton when you really need her?)

Like other foreign ministries, the State Department in Washington supposedly recruits the best and the brightest. Searching questions need to be asked as to why its diplomats did not foresee what Putin would do after his ally, Viktor Yanukovych, was forced to flee from his presidential office in Kiev.

Both Obama and Kerry have since warned Putin that Russia risks certain, unspecified "consequences" unless it pulls its forces out of Crimea.

The threat is about as empty as it is possible to get. With military intervention by the West completely out of the question, the talk inevitably turned to sanctions because they are the only things you can talk about when military intervention is out of the question.

It then becomes necessary to adopt the pretence that sanctions will bring Putin to heel. Otherwise the West looks impotent. Everyone knows, however, that the track record of sanctions in removing despots, tyrants and dictators, or at least altering their behaviour for the better, has veered between the hopeless and the truly pathetic down the years.

Other factors, however, further explain the West's failure to come up with a coherent, cohesive and meaningful response to Putin's two-finger salute.

First, his actions are the mirror image of military interventions by the United States - usually with close allies like Britain in tow - which have been highly dubious in terms of satisfying the provisions of international law.

The most obvious and notorious example is Iraq. George Bush Jnr's military adventure there drained the US of all moral authority when it comes to lecturing other countries about breaches of international law.

Putin's military excursion in the Crimea has highlighted American hypocrisy. That was bound to happen at some point. Someone was going to be the loser. Fate has decreed that Obama be the fall guy.

Second, the West's condemnation of Putin is tempered by the acceptance in many quarters that his marching into Crimea, while morally reprehensible, is also understandable to quite a large degree. In other words, you have to put yourself in Russia's shoes.

In Moscow's view, Ukraine's role is to serve as a buffer state. The prospect of a new government in Kiev joining the European Union or even Nato is beyond the pale - just as would be the loss of the Russian Navy's warm-water port on the Black Sea.

Furthermore, Moscow is refusing to recognise the new administration in Kiev because it claims - with some justification - that the democratically elected one has been overthrown in what amounts to a coup by Ukraine's extreme right.

In placing such obstacles in the way of resolving the crisis, Putin is using the stand-off with the West to push his wider agenda of restoring Russia to the superpower status it lost at the end of the Cold War.

So where does all this leave New Zealand? The answer is that the tyranny of distance has its virtues in this case.

The bottom line - and something which National and Labour agree on wholeheartedly - is that New Zealand's small-country status means that it is dependent on the major powers abiding by international law and respecting territorial sovereignty. Of course, when it really matters, those countries do the very opposite. Nevertheless, New Zealand is obliged to condemn Putin's illegal breach of Ukraine's sovereignty in the strongest possible terms.

New Zealand will also likely sign up to any sanctions imposed on Moscow more out of the need to show solidarity with the United States and like-minded European countries than to any effect.

The final stages of the negotiation of a free-trade agreement have been put on hold - a move which is probably more to New Zealand's cost than Russia's. In the conduct of international affairs, such moves are made to produce symbolic impact which is more effective than mere words.

Beyond that, there is not much else New Zealand can do.

- NZ Herald

John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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