Before we work ourselves into too tight a knot over what we should have done to keep Russia from seizing Crimea, here’s a sobering thought from Sen. Dick Durbin, fresh from a quick trip to Ukraine.
“I don’t think it’s over,” he said, referring to Vladimir Putin’s attempts to claw back parts of the Soviet Union.
“What happens if the next target for Putin is a NATO ally? What if it’s Lithuania?” he asked. “I do believe we would keep our word there.”
At the moment, that doesn’t seem likely.
“More likely Moldova,” located between Ukraine and Romania, he said. “It’s got a kind of suspect national identity — that’s what the Russians will argue, anyway. Like Crimea, Russia already has a military presence in Moldova. And if you look at the map, it would put Ukraine in a bad position. They would be surrounded.”
When you think of senatorial junkets, Hilton Head and the Caribbean come to mind. The severity of the situation is underscored by the fact that eight, count ’em, eight U.S. senators raced over with minimum comfort.
“We went on a military passenger plane,” Durbin said. “We left Thursday night, flew all night, arrived in the morning, had meetings all day, hit the sack Friday, meetings all day Saturday, then back.”
No golf? No leis? No festive dinners?
“It was a commitment,” he said. “There was no fun. Typically on these, at least you do some shopping. That didn’t happen. I literally had a 10-minute stop at a street vendor.”
Three Democrats and five Republicans took the trip, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. What they found was not encouraging.
“Here is Ukraine hanging by a thread, the army is just a shell of an operation,” Durbin said. “When they asked us for aid, here’s what they asked for: fuel, tires, sleeping bags and food. You think to yourself, ‘Oh man …’ They don’t have basic rifles, or guns for the police.” Durbin is pushing to send aid. Of the 150,000 Ukraine troops, 6,000 are ready to fight, he said. Given Ukraine’s reaction so far, it’s hard to imagine their forces resisting the Russian army.
“They’re never going to hold them off, and I don’t think many will die trying,” Durbin said. “All we can hope is the West makes serious noise and Putin decides not to go further.” Fat chance. Our hands basically tied, I asked what Illinois’ senior senator thought of the mouse shriek of partisan outrage that greeted Putin’s aggression back here.
“The premise on their side is that it happened because Obama is weak,” Durbin said. “Then you say, ‘What would you do that is strong?’ ‘Oh, I don’t know …’ When Obama asked for more military authority to stop Syrian chemical weapons, Republicans opposed it. Whatever he wants, they want the opposite.”
Given Putin’s recent bellicose, passionate statements about how Russia has been cheated by the West, it doesn’t seem likely he’s done yet. And bad as our military options are, the economic options are worse, hurting our economy as well as Russia’s.
“The U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Moscow has 900 members,” Durbin said. “Fifty of the top U.S. corporations are there — Boeing, Caterpillar. This cuts close to home. I don’t want to see it reach that point. And it’s easier for the U.S. than Europe, which is so wedded to Russia regarding energy.”
So what can we do?
“Freezing travel of oligarchs, make life uncomfortable for the ruling classes.”
That’ll bring Putin to his knees. Speaking of freezing travel, I asked Durbin if it were true that he’s been barred from Russia.
“Yes. I’m on the banned list. The first country that banned me was the apartheid government in South Africa. So when Putin made this decision, I’ve been telling folks the Groucho Marx line: ‘I’ve been thrown out of better countries than this.’ ”
The bottom line is that ruler-for-life Putin has the whip hand, at the moment. He can push as much as he likes, and the West’s options for response are bad and worse.
“He’s on a mission to restore the Soviet empire,” Durbin said. “He’s a serious-minded guy. The president once said, if you want to analyze Putin, start with that he was a colonel in the KGB.”
Durbin said we have to realize that what seems to be inexplicable aggression to the world is, to Putin, smart politics.
“John Kerry told me a handful of people around Putin are hard-liners who want to restore the empire,” Durbin said. “It’s a popular sentiment, if you can divert the [Russian] public’s attention from the economy to some grandiose restoration of empire. It’s been done throughout history.”