WASHINGTON -- In 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, President George H.W. Bush and his able secretary of state, James Baker III, carried through one of the most brilliant foreign policy coups of American history.
The entire event meant quite simply that the Soviet Union was virtually at an end -- and it was officially ended by Moscow two years after that. The team of Bush and Baker could have preened and boasted before the American people and celebrated a long-awaited victory in the Cold War. But no such thing occurred.
President Bush, the last in our age from the Eastern Establishment and blessedly endowed with that group's good manners and good sense, treated the outgoing Soviets with courtesy and was widely quoted as utterly refusing many in Congress who urged him to celebrate. He was "not going to dance on the Wall," he said firmly, thus for the moment saving U.S.-Russian relations.
And yet today, we see again those "relations" are troubled, this time over a small peninsula in the Black Sea with only 2 million inhabitants. What did the vote in Crimea Sunday to rejoin Russia serve to tell us?
In the beginning of the Ukraine crisis three weeks ago, with the night-and-day gunfire across Independence Square in Kiev, even highly aware Western analysts believed that Russian President Vladimir Putin had fallen into a series of accidents to which his responses were ad hoc. No more!
After Sunday's referendum, attention has turned to the more critical approach that Putin's act in annexing the Crimea again (it has been part of Ukraine only since 1954) is part of a long-term, newly aggressive policy that will soon move to annex more of the Ukrainian state. An interview on Ukrainian Internet television this weekend made this point with great seriousness.
Andrei Illarionov, once a leading economic adviser to the Kremlin and now a virulent critic, said in the interview that Putin had decided to retake Ukraine some years ago, had worked out a detailed program to do it, and is currently designing a new constitution for the supposedly "independent" country, which he intends to impose upon it.
Illarionov takes the hard-line position that a "Munich agreement of 2014" with the West is in the works.
Meanwhile, from Moscow come warnings from reliable political analysts that many of Putin's hangers-on are being let go if they are not super-loyal enough.
And ultra-Stalinists such as writer Aleksandr A. Prokhanov are quoted in The New York Times, saying, "I am afraid that I am interested in a Cold War with the West. I was very patient. I waited for 20 years ... I worked day and night."
It may be, then, that we are truly in for a re-enactment or resurgence of parts of the Soviet empire, even though most of its power was destroyed between 1987 and 1991. With what we know now, this would be a Russophile state, centered as before in Moscow, but allying also Ukraine, Belarus, Armenia, Moldova and perhaps the now-independent Kazakhstan.
Or it may NOT be!
The most convincing newspaper headline Monday after the referendum, for instance, was on the front page of The Financial Times: "Crimea poll isolates Russia."
In truth, that lead is accurate in its whispered warning. Putin -- the man who likes to flex himself before the "babushkii" -- is actually very weak.
He has problems that should make Barack Obama take a nap. Putin's army is poorly trained and undisciplined. His population, now about 143 million, is dangerously diminishing every few years. Islam is growing, both as a percentage of the population and as a threat in and from the Caucasus regions.
Most of all, in terms of the West -- its reality as an enemy and its even greater threat as the inexhaustible supplier of modern trinkets, treasures and temptations -- the very worst thing Putin could do would be to shut it out. This has, after all, been tried, from 1917 to 1991, often with horrendous results.
Ex-KGB agent Putin rules together with his old intelligence cronies and with the billionaires' club of Russians who picked up the old Stalinist industries for nothing. These men and women now have children at school in America and Europe; they own homes in London; they love traveling about the world as bravo celebrity figures. You do not see them staying at a Super 8.
"Isolation" -- and the Plaza and the Waldorf will all be gone. Putin might gain that barbarians' victory cup for calling his people to battle -- and it would work for a while. But Ukraine has, in the end, nothing that the Putins in Russia really want; while we in the West have everything they want.
So far, President Obama and the Europeans, especially Germany's deceptively mellow Angela Merkel, have handled this well -- like Bush and Baker handled the fall of the Soviet Union. They are not dancing.
- Politics & Government
- James Baker III
- President George H.W. Bush