Obama Offers Putin a Face-Saving Off-Ramp on Crimea

Obama Offers Putin a Face-Saving Off-Ramp on Crimea

Obama Offers Putin a Face-Saving Off-Ramp on Crimea

It’s a last-minute offer, but Putin should take it.


The fact that President Vladimir Putin hasn’t admitted what everyone else in the world knows, namely, that thousands of Russian troops have illegally seized control of Crimea, is a good thing, in one way: because Russia hasn’t owned up to occupying Crimea, it’s just a little bit easier easier for Putin to back down, to avoid annexing Crimea after the phony referendum on Sunday, and to seek a diplomatic solution. Had Putin admitted that Russia was occupying Crimea, he’d feel that much more pressure to defend it. So there’s a chance that, even if Sunday’s referendum on independence for Crimea is held, there still can be a diplomatic resolution of the crisis.

It’s not likely, but it’s possible. And yesterday, both President Obama and Ukraine’s new leader, the unelected Prime Minister Yatsenyuk, opened the door for that sort of solution. (You can read the entire text of the comments by Obama and Yatsenyuk at the White House’s website.) Secretary of State John Kerry is headed to London to meet Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in what could end up being a meeting that lasts two days or more.

Obama’s plan, essentially, calls for freezing everything in place until after Ukraine’s elections on May 25, after which Ukraine can negotiate a final status for Crimea with Russia. That might involve anything from Ukraine’s complete refusal to countenance any change in the status quo, to some sort of enhanced (read: pro-Russia) autonomy, to a decision to allow a real, well-organized referendum within Crimea to go forward. And Yatsenyuk said that, above all, Ukraine will continue to recognize and support Russia’s long-standing military facilities in Crimea, including its Black Sea naval base. Yatsenyuk said: “So much will depend on whether Russia…wants to have Ukraine as a partner or as a subordinate.”

Said Obama: “We hope that President Putin is willing to seize that path.”

Kerry, who appears more hawkish than Obama on various issues, including Ukraine, in testimony yesterday before a congressional committee said that even if the Sunday referendum is held, it doesn’t mean that there can’t be a diplomatic solution—as long as Russia doesn’t follow the phony vote by annexing the region. Reports The Wall Street Journal:

He also pointed to possible ways around a long-running standoff with Russia. For example, he said, the Russian parliament, or Duma, may avoid quick action to annex Crimea even if Sunday’s referendum is approved.

“There are a lot of variants here, which is why it is urgent that we have this conversation with the Russians and try to figure out a way forward,” Mr. Kerry said.

In fact, the takeover of Crimea may already be past fixing, and irreversible. That’s the expressly stated opinion of Robert Gates, and others. But, if Crimea does get absorbed into the Russian Federation, as seems likely—and especially if things get worse, say, if Russia continues its irredentist course toward “protecting” Russian-speaking inhabitants of eastern Ukraine—then the pressure on President Obama to make a major course correction on US policy toward Russia will be immense, and probably irresistible. And the crisis also would cause a deep and lasting rift in Russia’s relations with Europe, whose vast economic ties with Russia cause the continent to shudder over the idea of a confrontation that could involve sanctions. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is no doubt under enormous pressure to avoid a rupture in her country’s relations with Russia, but such pressure will be impossible to resist if Russia persists on its present course. Said Merkel yesterday:

Ladies and gentlemen, if Russia continues on its course of the past weeks, it will not only be a catastrophe for Ukraine. We would not only see it, also as neighbors of Russia, as a threat, and it would not only change the European Union’s relationship with Russia. No, this would also cause massive damage to Russia, economically and politically.

Along with the United States, Germany and other members of the G-7, collectively known as “the West,” issued a statement strongly urging Russia to seek a diplomatic settlement. The statement said that none of the G-7 countries will recognize the results of Sunday’s referendum:

Any such referendum would have no legal effect. Given the lack of adequate preparation and the intimidating presence of Russian troops, it would also be a deeply flawed process which would have no moral force. For all these reasons, we would not recognize the outcome.

But, as The Wall Street Journal noted, the G-7 statement stopped short of threatening sanctions or other retaliatory actions. That’s all good, because—like Obama’s carefully worded offer in his meeting with Yatsenyuk—it creates an opportunity for Putin to back down with face-saving grace and agree to some solution.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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