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This Lent, Pray for the Conversion of Russia… and the United States

Vsevolod Georgobiani

We really don’t want another Cold War.

As Catholics enter the penitential season of Lent, war in Europe is suddenly a possibility once again. The Russian incursion into the Crimean Peninsula last Saturday, which led to an ongoing standoff with Ukrainian soldiers and sailors garrisoned in Sevastopol, has much of Eastern Europe holding its breath. The brand new Ukrainian government, which took power ten days ago after overthrowing the democratically elected President Viktor Yanukovych, has mobilized the nation’s military reserves, and Ukrainian forces are reportedly streaming into the eastern half of the nation. The Ukrainians are not likely to fight, but they may make a good show of it.

For its part, the United States condemned the Russian action. President Obama threatened financial and trade sanctions against Russia, and joined other members of the Group of Seven nations in pulling out of a planned June summit in Sochi, site of the recent Olympics. "What cannot be done is for Russia with impunity to put its soldiers on the ground and to violate basic principles that are recognized around the world," Obama said.  Secretary of State John Kerry went further, denouncing Russia’s “incredible” act of aggression. “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext,” said Kerry.  Really? Neither the President nor his Secretary of State seemed to notice that the moral credibility of the United States has been radically diminished in recent decades by its penchant for bombing and sometimes invading and occupying other countries, sometimes on trumped up pretexts.

The geopolitical fact is that Russia’s national interest in the Crimea is hardly trumped up. Russia occupies more land than any other nation on earth, but aside from the remote Baltic Sea is effectively landlocked, without access to the warm water ports necessary for global trade and the projection of naval power. Since the time of Peter the Great, Russia has viewed the Crimean Peninsula as its gateway to the Mediterranean and national greatness. So have other countries. In the middle of the 19th Century, France, Britain, and the Ottoman Empire teamed up to deny Russia naval access through Crimea. The result was a humiliating defeat for Russia, which seemed to confirm her status as a sort of backward oaf among nations. In many ways, defeat in the Crimean War was the beginning of the end of the Romanov Dynasty, a lesson no Russian ruler is likely to forget. It’s certainly not one that is lost on Vladimir Putin.

If the West had been paying attention, it might have foreseen that when the Ukrainian government fell to a frankly anti-Russian, Western-orientated faction, Russia would move to reoccupy the Crimea, which was part of the Soviet Union until 1991. To date, there is no evidence that Russia intends to occupy the rest of eastern Ukraine, although the largely Russian and Russian-speaking population there might prefer that. This move is about geopolitics, and from the Russian point of view it is a smart move, worth the risk of temporary opprobrium and even isolation.  The isolation won’t last long: Russia supplies nearly 40 percent of Europe’s natural gas and a quarter of its crude oil. Putin no doubt recognizes that the European Union, under pressure from the United States, will need to impose some face-saving sanctions on Russia. But if the pressure is too great, he may just turn the valve on the Urengoy–Pomary–Uzhgorod pipeline. The United States will continue to fulminate, but then we always need an enemy for domestic political consumption and the Russian Bear is an old reliable one. The Europeans, especially Germany, will recognize the Russian action for what it is and eventually make their peace with it.

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