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The Boston Globe

Opinion

H.D.S. Greenway

Inconvenient truths about Russia, US

An armed man, believed to be Russian serviceman, sits in an armored military vehicle in a village outside Simferopol Tuesday.

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An armed man, believed to be Russian serviceman, sits in an armored military vehicle in a village outside Simferopol Tuesday.

For Vladimir Putin, the inconvenient truth is that his excuse for invading Crimea, to protect Russian citizens, is as phony as when the Kaiser sent a gun boat to Morocco before the First World War to protect German citizens. Germany had to look hard to find a citizen to protect, finally finding and dispatching a lone German to the beach, where he had to run up and down waving at the gun boat so that the crew could row ashore and protect him. There are plenty of Russians in Crimea, but none needing protection.

It’s also inconvenient for critics of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to admit she was not all wrong when she compared Putin’s excuse with Hitler’s in Czechoslovakia just before World War II. Putin is no Hitler, but I suspect he catches glimpses of Peter the Great when he looks in the mirror. Putin also has a bit of the Kaiser’s bullying and blustering, and he wants Russia to have the status it once had.

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That being said, it is inconvenient to admit that Putin is acting no differently than many US presidents have acted. The United States invaded the Dominican Republic and Grenada using the phony excuse of protecting American citizens. The latter was condemned by the UN General Assembly as a violation of international law. From Russia’s point of view, President Clinton’s taking Kosovo away from Serbia was a violation of international norms.

Another not-so-convenient truth that Obama’s critics forget is that there are limits to American power and always have been. Neither the United States nor the European Union can physically coerce Russia into leaving Crimea. Russia may no longer be a superpower, but it’s strong enough to preclude any illusions of a military option. This is 2014, not 1914.

The Bobbsey Twins of toughness, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, love to rail against Obama’s “feckless” foreign policy, but even those hyper-belligerent Republicans, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, couldn’t get Russia to disgorge Abkhazia and South Ossetia when it seized them from Georgia in 2008.

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President Eisenhower was not able to save Budapest from Russian tanks in 1956. Lyndon Johnson was not able to save the Prague Spring when Russian tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia in 1968. So all the get-tough talk rings false when you consider the reality that it’s only the less powerful countries that can be pushed around. You can go to war against Serbia, Iraq, or Afghanistan, but you can’t really contemplate using force against a nuclear power such as Russia.

Unhelpful suggestions abound. An op-ed in The Wall Street Journal suggests that the war planes the United States is sending to Poland be equipped to deliver nuclear weapons. This confrontation requires cool heads, not mindless escalation. Critics say that under Obama, the United States is no longer willing to act as a world power, citing as evidence Obama’s decision not to bomb Syria. As former Republican Secretary of State James Baker said: The trouble with his party is that they never see a war they don’t like.

Why is it that conservatives are so nostalgic for the Cold War? Obama’s attempt to “reset” relations with Russia is now being criticized as naïve. But Russian help with Iran and Syria’s chemical weapons still matters.

The inconvenient truth is that Russians are the majority in Crimea, and if Sunday’s referendum were by any chance to be free and fair, the majority would undoubtedly vote to rejoin Russia, where Crimea resided for centuries. It raises some questions when the West says Ukrainians must have the right to decide how they are governed, but not give the same rights to the autonomous region of Crimea.

Russia’s weak point is its economy, and if the West really wants to get Putin’s attention it should immediately and visibly start making preparations to make Europe less dependent on Russian gas. That would do more to demonstrate that there are consequences for aggressive behavior than all the huffing and puffing that Obama’s critics are advocating.

H.D.S. Greenway is a former editorial page editor of the Globe.

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