The US allegation that Russia is violating the INF Treaty limiting intermediate nuclear forces comes at a worrisome time with the unrest in Ukraine already roiling European waters. From Russia, intermediate range weapons threaten Europe rather than the US, which can only be reached by longer range, strategic weapons. It is probably to Putin’s advantage to make Western Europe think twice about whether he is really serious about building a new cruise missile that threatens them, and puts Obama in the position of possibly looking weak if he doesn’t react strongly.
No doubt the Republicans will wax nostalgic for Reagan who negotiated the INF agreement with Gorbachev. However, in Putin, Obama has a much stronger and wilier opponent than Reagan had in Gorbachev. Gorbachev was interested in bringing Russia in from the cold and warming up to the West. He responded when Reagan taunted him with “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Would Reagan have gotten the same response if he had said in earlier years, “Mr. Stalin, tear down this wall,” or today, “Mr. Putin, tear down this wall.” Putin sees Gorbachev as a failed, wimpy leader who gave away Russia’s international position. He doesn’t want to give away Ukraine, as Gorbachev gave away most Soviet satellite countries. The losses of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are particularly grating to Putin. If Putin thinks Gorbachev gave away the store, he may be strongly opposed to doing the same thing in Ukraine.
The desire of the majority of Ukrainians, and particularly those of western Ukraine to join the West and the EU is understandable and laudatory. However, they may be victims of the history of Ukraine and Russia, just as are many Russians who desire stronger ties with the West than Putin does. It is not irrelevant that the Russian nation was created in Kiev about 1,000 years ago, before the rise of Moscow and St. Petersburg. While the loss of some former Soviet satellites, particularly some of the “stans” to the south is more like the UK’s loss of its colonies, the loss of Ukraine is more like the UK’s loss of Scotland. The divorce may come, but not without some wailing and gnashing of teeth, in both cases. Although a replay of “Braveheart” is unlikely in Scotland, war remains a possibility in Ukraine. Putin would no doubt like to keep control of Kiev, the birthplace of mother Russia, but if he finds this too challenging, he try for a land corridor to Crimea by annexing some of eastern Ukraine which favors Russian over the West. On one of the political talk shows this morning, New Yorker editor David Remnick pointed out that there is still a lot of old Soviet heavy industry left in eastern Ukraine, another incentive for Putin to try to hang on to it.
In any case, Reagan’s “Tear down this wall” speech is largely irrelevant. It was made to a weaker Russian leader at a time when Russia was in great turmoil. Russia may have lost ground economically and industrially since Gorbachev’s time, but Putin wants to reverse that trend, and keeping at least part of Ukraine may be important to that objective. Obama has a much more formidable opponent.