As a small "d" democrat, I'm no fan of Vladimir Putin who partially rigs elections, suppresses free speech and a free press, jails dissidents, and caters to billionaire oligarchs.
As a progressive, my heart is with the protesters in the Maidan who seek a freer and more democratic future (despite the presence of some neo-fascists in their midst); as my heart was with the protesters in Tahrir Square (whose democratic aspirations were defeated for now, first by the Muslim Brotherhood, then by the Egyptian military); and as my heart was with the protesters in Bahrain (where the U.S. holds a strategic military base and allowed Saudi Arabia to invade Bahrain's sovereignty to restore the old regime).
As a student of history, however, I believe the most important strategic goal of the West is to find a diplomatic solution to the Ukrainian crisis which avoids a new Cold War between the West and Russia while largely preserving Ukrainian. The only people who would benefit from a new Cold War are U.S. and Western arms manufacturers and the most reactionary forces in Russia, Europe and the U.S.
My question is whether President Obama is tough enough to stand up not only to Putin but to the Republican neocons and find such a diplomatic solution, or whether he will blink in a time of crisis and allow America and the West to be dragged into a dangerous new Cold War with Russia.
A new Cold War would not only endanger world peace and threaten the outbreak of a series of small hot wars that could escalate into broader conflicts. It could endanger the economies of both the West and Russia by diminishing Russian oil exports to Europe which could devastate the economies of both sides, bring an export-oriented Russia to its economic knees, cause a possible recession in the West fueled by rising oil prices, and flood out needed domestic investments in the US in the name of higher military spending. It would also do great harm to the protesters in the Maiden and to the democratic aspirations of citizens in other nations on Russia's peripheries.
To find a diplomatic solution and avoid a new Cold War, as distasteful as we may find Putin, Obama and Europe must understand his motives and his bottom-line interests on a granular level. While keeping pressure on Putin, they must then work quietly behind the scenes to give both Putin and the current unelected Ukrainian government a diplomatic off-ramp which respects both Russia interests and the Ukraine's sovereignty. Obama and Europe must be strong enough to stand up to the likes of Republican neocons like Lindsey Graham and John McCain, whose calls to humiliate and isolate Russia will only backfire. Remember that it was the West's humiliation of Germany after World War I that helped lead to the rise of Hitler and the tragedy of World War II.
Grand proclamations by Western politicians and pundits that Putin simply wants to restore the old Soviet and/or Czarist empire are useful only to those who seek a new Cold War, and if true, guarantee that will be the outcome. Obama and our European allies must not expand the crisis in the Ukraine into a global conflict over Russia's entire relationship with the West, nor with its historical neighbors ,nor with the entire world. Rather, it must contract the conflict to the relatively local issues regarding the Ukraine.
In that regard, Putin has interests that are specific to the Ukraine, and most notably to Crimea, historically part of Russia and where Russia has a strategically important naval base on the Black Sea. If the U.S. was willing to allow a Saudi invasion to crush a democratic mass movement in Bahrain to protect a U.S. naval base far from our shores, Putin is unlikely to allow a democratic mass movement in the Ukraine to deprive him of a far more important naval base directly on Russia's border.
So if we're willing to entertain the belief that, far short of recreating the Soviet or Czarist empire, Putin has understandable, if not legitimate, interests in protecting Russia's position specifically in Crimea and more generally in the Ukraine, the endgame for a negotiated settlement begins to take shape.
On the one hand, such a settlement would be short of continuing Russian occupation or annexation of Crimea or even more of Eastern Ukraine. On the other hand, it would be short of a completely unitary Ukraine with a strong central government and its main economic, political and military relationships facing to the West. It would more likely look like a federated Ukraine state with substantial autonomy for Eastern Ukraine and which threads the needle of neutrality to maintain political and economic ties both Eastward towards Russia and Westward towards Europe. Most specifically, it would also include a guarantee of Crimea as a significant Russian naval base, and economic assistance to the Ukraine state to solve its fiscal crisis without imposing overly harsh austerity.
A negotiated settlement somewhat along those lines would give Putin a necessary face-saving off-ramp. It would also give Obama and European political leaders political cover that they solved the crisis without sacrificing Ukrainian sovereignty. Given Russia's historic ties to the Ukraine, it's also probably the best solution that's politically feasible for the Ukrainian people.
Most importantly, it would avoid a dangerous new Cold War that would put the peace and prosperity of much of the world in continuing jeopardy.