President Obama delivered a brief press statement today in which he stated that rumors about Russian military activity in Crimea were "deeply disturbing" to the United States. He then drew dangerous red lines that threaten a serious international military conflict.
What is the backdrop to the president's warning?
Post-coup Kiev is not Ukraine -- even the media has noted that Ukraine is deeply divided -- and therefore it should have been expected that regions of Ukraine with a vast majority of Russians and Russian speakers would be less enthusiastic over the West's picks to head up the country.
Nevertheless, what is good for the goose is definitely not good for the gander in the eyes of US foreign policy. Where the occupation of parliament in Kiev by the West-backed rebels was hailed by the US and EU as an expression of the people's will, a similar occupation of the autonomous parliament in Crimea is condemned as an anti-democratic move. Suddenly "protesters" become "gunmen" in the US media and in statements by US politicians. The "mini-Maidan" in Crimea must be crushed because the people there have made the wrong choice according to Washington. They prefer to remain close to Russia, which is not acceptable to the West.
However Crimea and indeed much of eastern Ukraine is Russian and Russian-speaking. The breakaway of economic basket-case western Ukraine populated by Ukrainians, Poles, and others is of less concern to Russia than the threatened suppression of the Russian speaking east (one of the first acts of the new Ukrainian parliament was to overturn laws permitting the use of minority languages in Ukraine). Russia does have an interest in protect its citizens living in neighboring countries, as we saw in South Ossetia in 2008. This is not unique. The US has a similar policy when it comes to protecting Americans abroad.
Whether actual Russian troops are deployed outside their designated areas near the Russian naval facilities is a subject of some speculation. The new Ukrainian "authorities" have much incentive to exaggerate the Russian threat to excite the likes of John "we're all Ukrainians now" McCain. Their popularity beyond the small Independence Square in Kiev is miniscule and they are no doubt bracing for a backlash from a nation bewildered by events of the past two weeks.
Josh Rogin of the Daily Beast speculates that the military-looking personnel spotted around Crimea may in fact be a private security force contracted by Viktor Yanukovich, who having not been impeached according to the Ukrainian constitution still legally retains his office -- despite US and EU claims. The theory goes that Yanukovich is preparing for a return to Ukraine in Crimea from where he will struggle to regain control. Whatever the truth, Russia denies claims that its troops are operating outside areas permitted by treaty.
Into this incredibly tense mix swaggers President Barack Obama and his foreign policy team.
In today's press conference the president continued the use of highly provocative and ambiguous terms to suggest a US military escalation should certain events transpire. In Syria the red line was the use of chemical weapons; in Ukraine it is Russian military involvement, even presumably to protect Russian citizens trapped in a violent revolution.
Said Obama today:
The United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine."Costs" is a word that appears intentionally ambiguous while at the same time threatening.
Obama further warns that Ukraine's future "must be determined by the Ukrainian people," skipping over the fact that his senior foreign policy officials have been engaged in manipulation of events while on Ukrainian soil from before the initial November protests.
Obama's ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, restates (by Tweet) Obama's threat in far starker and more confrontational terms this evening:
We call on Russia to pull back military forces being built up in region.Is "we" the entire US government with the implied force of the US military? Or are her Twitter fingers getting overly-excited at the prospect of another US military intervention overseas? Does she speak for President Obama in this statement?
The Obama Administration is by hubris slouching the US toward a military conflict with Russia. It is time to turn it down several notches, and let us hope that cooler heads than those of McCain and Power and Rice and Nuland can prevail. Otherwise...