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Crimea: The End Game

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The Crimean Parliament has announced that it will hold a referendum March 16 on whether Crimea should join the Russian Federation. If Crimeans vote to support such a move, it will give Russian President Vladimir Putin just the pretext he is looking for to annex Crimea and, therefore, to create an even bigger crisis for the West.

Of course, President Putin did not orchestrate the Ukrainian crisis as part of a scheme to retake Crimea. He felt threatened by Ukraine's growing desire to become closer to the West, and he reacted when his puppet, former Ukrainian president Viktor F. Yanukovych, fled to Russia. Furthermore, he defended his actions with lies. For instance, his claim that ethnic Russians living in Ukraine were in danger.

Crimea, which had historically been part of Russia, was gifted in 1954 to Ukraine by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Sixty percent of the Crimean population is ethnic Russian. Russia maintains a strategically important naval base on the Crimean peninsula, its gateway to the Black Sea. The Crimean economy is heavily dependent on the Russians.

Given this context, it is hard to understand why some Republicans are blaming President Barack Obama for this crisis. Could it be politics? Senator John McCain (R-AZ) has been bitter since he lost to then Senator Obama in the 2008 Presidential Election. He has since been harshly critical of Obama, who he calls "feckless." "(Obama) does not understand that Vladimir Putin is an old KGB colonel bent on restoration of the Soviet empire. ...This president has never understood it," McCain said.

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a close friend of McCain's, has lambasted the president as weak and indecisive. For Graham everything ties back to a favorite Republican meme. "It started with Benghazi," Graham said. "When you kill Americans and nobody pays a price, you invite this type of aggression. I think Putin believes Obama is really all talk and no action. And unless we push back soon, the worse is yet to come."

Former Republican New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani seemed truly praiseworthy of the Russian president -- as if America would be better off if Putin in charge. "He makes a decision and he executes it, quickly. Then everybody reacts. That's what you call a leader," he told Fox News. "President Obama, he's got to think about it. He's got to go over it again. He's got to talk to more people about it."

But this crisis is not President Obama's fault. Nor was it President George W. Bush's fault when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008. Nor was it President Lyndon Johnson's fault when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia. Nor was it President Eisenhower's fault when the Soviets invaded Hungary.

President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are working with Western allies to create a diplomatic solution for Ukraine and an "off ramp" for Russia. Ukraine has been surprisingly restrained given the circumstances. And, while a few shots have been fired by Russian soldiers, no one has been killed since the protests last month.

The Ukrainian crisis has nothing to do with Benghazi, nor is it the result of a weak American president. Now the question is will Putin really want to take the off ramp or deescalate tensions? Or might he be inclined to play this chess match out in a different way?

Crimea votes to join Russia, and invites Putin to take over. Putin sends in additional troops to "protect" the Crimean (nee Russian) people from the Ukrainians. After much heated diplomatic negotiations and military threats, Crimea rejoins Russia, and Crimean Tartars and other minorities are suppressed. Meanwhile, Ukraine elects a new "independent" government and receives billions of dollars in aid from the West.

Putin is an opportunist who wants to rebuild the former Russian empire. He believes that the "...demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical disaster of the century." Of course, Crimea is where legendary Russian Grigory Potemkin constructed his famous "Potemkin Villages" in 1787 to impress Russian Empress Catherine II. They are now a symbol of deceit, something that the Russian leader has mastered.