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WEST MUST STEP CAREFULLY IN CRIMEA

Georgie Anne Geyer

WASHINGTON -- Repeatedly over these last few days, we've heard the question raised, especially on television news, about whether the worrisome situation in Ukraine is comparable to former conflicts.

Is it, the favorite question goes, another Cold War?

Many of the well-meaning people repeating that concern don't actually know what the phrase means. This makes it a bad comparison in these troubled times because it can lead to responses that are dangerous indeed.

The term "Cold War" was first used by Franklin D. Roosevelt's close adviser Bernard Baruch during a 1947 speech. It was then picked up by Winston Churchill in his warnings about Russian intentions after the Allied-Soviet victory in World War II.

This new kind of war was far different from the all-out military carnage of the world war. Instead, once the dust settled, the United States, Britain and Europe realized that Stalin's powerful Russia was intent upon using political, economic and propaganda "conflicts" to fight the West in a different way. Eastern Europe, for instance, was largely taken into the Soviet sphere through thought control, military threats and the imposition of Soviet-backed leaders.

The Cold War, says the Encyclopedia Britannica, involved "limited recourse to weapons, largely because of fear of a nuclear holocaust." And when the Soviet Union was officially dissolved in 1991, American leaders boasted that this unusual victory was accomplished without a single shot fired in anger.

So what, then, do we have today? Ukraine has a huge base of rich farmland with some of the great wheat fields of the world. It was also the site of one of the world's great nuclear disasters when the plant at Chernobyl blew up and thousands were poisoned.

Over the centuries, Ukraine has been under the control of Poland, Lithuania and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, giving it a natural proclivity toward the West. But when it was taken, piece by piece, by Moscow between 1924 and 1991, everything changed.

Moscow tried every means to "Russify" the naturally Western Ukrainians, whose Western-leaning capital was once called "Christian Kiev" and had close ties to Europe before being brutally destroyed by the Mongols in the l3th century. As it is today, the Western two-thirds of the country are pro-Western and speak Ukrainian, while the Eastern third is pro-Russian and speaks Russian. Sevastopol, in the beautiful Crimea, is occupied by the Russian fleet, and that is a big part of the problem.

When soldiers without the slightest warning poured into Crimea last weekend -- apparently Russian, although wearing unmarked uniforms -- no one really should have been surprised. Crimea has the Russian fleet's only warm seaport, and thus, opening to the world. All of its other bases are in the cruel Arctic seas.

So when Vladimir Putin, the Russian president who has been growing more disturbed by the dismantling of the old Soviet empire, saw the Ukrainian people rise massively in Kiev over the last two weeks, his first fear had to be for losing Crimea. But all of the Ukraine, if lost, would also deal a terrible blow to his hope of re-establishing a new Soviet empire -- an ECONOMIC empire compared to those of the West.

Putin's heart's desire this time around is not winning a horrendous war against fascism (World War II), or even outfoxing the West in the corridors of power (the Cold War, when Russia had substantial power), but establishing his own "Eurasian Economic Union" based in Moscow.

But if the outbreaks of violence in Kiev, which were based on Ukrainians' desire to join the European Union, were to succeed, Moscow would be left alone. Worse, this might be a prelude to Ukraine's joining NATO, which would bring Western troops right up to the entryways to the Kremlin. This would be enough to drive a Russian filled with the historic fear of being surrounded quite mad.

What we have here is a weakened Russian heart of the old Soviet empire, struggling for its last hope to form an economic union composed of the remnants of the U.S.S.R., like Ukraine. Putin's actions may LOOK like those of a Stalin, but that is stagecraft.

Unfortunately, the weakness of the Russian Federation does not mean Putin will act rationally in response to that reality. He may behave quite irrationally if he sees this act as his third. And all of the tough talk now emanating from the West may only serve to bring on some awful finale.

As for the West, it would seem to me that the leaders should be very cautious. They can make tough statements, but make them behind the scenes. Putin should not be humiliated over Crimea, a la Versailles. This scenario is not something that we brought on; it is something that was inevitably going to happen. Essentially, it is Europe's child.

(Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_geyer(at)juno.com.)

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