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Throughout his long, rambling press conference on Tuesday, Vladimir Putin’s deep-seated resentment towards the west was on clear display.
“It is not the first time our western partners are doing this in Ukraine,” the Russian president told the assembled journalists. “They sit there across the pond . . . sometimes it seems they feel like they are in a lab and they are running all sorts of experiments on the rats without understanding the consequences.”
By invading Crimea at the weekend, Mr Putin has set off the biggest foreign policy crisis of the Obama administration. In the process, he has also created a test of whether the west he rails against really exists. The Ukraine crisis will demonstrate whether there still is an unbreakable alliance between the US and Europe that an American president can mobilise to respond decisively to threats, in this case to a European nation.
Russian troops are in effective control of many parts of the Ukrainian region of Crimea and the United States is threatening Russia with isolation if it doesn’t back down. In this week’s podcast, Gideon Rachman is joined by Neil Buckley, East Europe editor and chief US commentator Edward Luce to discuss how this dangerous situation is likely to develop
The working assumption in the Kremlin appears to be that a US jaded by nearly 13 years of war and an EU that was nearly felled by an economic crisis will not muster the unity or resources to resist in any real way a Ukraine land grab. Mr Putin’s gamble is that “the west” is now a fiction.
“Russia thinks the west is no longer a crusading alliance. Russia thinks the west is now all about the money,” author Ben Judah said this week on the website Politico. “The Kremlin thinks it knows Europe’s dirty secret now.”
The early diplomatic skirmishes in this crisis bear out some of Mr Putin’s instincts. There are signs of friction between the US, on one hand, and Germany and the UK on the other about what sort of sanctions should be implemented to punish Russia. The now infamous British document snapped by a photographer on Monday promised not to “close London’s financial centre to Russians”.
Even if the crisis does not escalate, there could still be a difficult argument between the US and Europe should Mr Putin decide to stay put in Crimea. It is easy to imagine some in Europe would then declare the emergency over and try to move on, while the cry of “appeasement” would begin to echo around Washington.
However, if the early moves are going to plan, Mr Putin might also find that he has provided the useful service of concentrating minds.
With the Afghanistan war coming to an end, Nato was about to face another of its periodic existential crises. The prospect of an expansionist Russia will give the alliance new relevance – and Nato’s newer members from eastern Europe never doubted its importance.
The trade talks between the US and the EU may be limping along, as trade talks often do but at the very least the Ukraine crisis has helped made the strategic argument for the proposed deal.
Recent events have also shaken up the debate in the US about whether to export low-cost natural gas to Europe. John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House, insisted on Tuesday that lifting the ban on exports, which the Obama administration has been considering, would “be one clear step the US can take to stand by our allies and stand up to Russian aggression”. That could deal a long-term blow to Moscow’s economic leverage over Europe.
Viktor Yanukovich has been ousted but Russia is flexing its military muscle, fearing a threat to its interests in Ukraine
Whatever the outcome, the crisis will also change the arc of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy. In between his pivot to Asia and the endless firefighting in the Middle East, Mr Obama has often been accused of neglecting Europe. The Poles, Czechs and other eastern Europeans have felt this particularly acutely as they watched the administration try to build a good working relationship with Moscow. But for the nearly three years that he remains in office, Mr Obama will now be much more focused on eastern Europe and on the anxieties of America’s allies in the region.
There have been so many twists and turns in this crisis, even in the past week, as to make predictions risky. Maybe Mr Putin really does have the west’s number. A prolonged stand-off between the west and Russia would also push Moscow closer to China. But it is at least possible that Mr Putin will end up breathing new life into the very Atlantic alliance that so irks him.
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