The taxi driver who took me to the airport of Kiev, Ukraine's capital, wanted to express his view about the situation. I didn't understand Ukrainian; he didn't speak English. "Putin," I said. "Putin Gitler," he muttered immediately. "Putin Hitler?" I asked. He nodded with satisfaction. It's nice to be able to have a civilized conversation with a foreigner.
The driver was exaggerating. Putin is a neighborhood thug, but the comparison to Hitler is groundless in the best-case scenario and premature in the worst-case scenario.
Ukraine is a failed, shattered country, suffering from an ongoing internal rift on a historical, geographical, ethnic and religious background. From the moment it was established, on the ruins of the Soviet empire, it has been a pawn between west and east. Russia on one side, America and the European Union on the other side. Each bloc infused money to convenient political movements, scattered promises, launched threats. The Cold War did not reach Ukraine yesterday: It has been there all along.
Putin took over the Crimea peninsula after nationalist masses in Ukraine's capital forcibly banished the president, a corrupt henchman of Moscow, and forced the parliament to appoint a new, anti-Russian leadership. Putin refused to see the Ukrainian spit as rain. He responded with an invasion.
What I saw earlier this month in the Crimea peninsula – those in Washington, Brussels or Kiev don't want to see. The Russian invasion force kept a low profile. Soldiers were forbidden to have any contact with the population. They stood on the ground, masked, without uttering a sound. Present yet absent.
There was no need for more than that. The reception ranged from indifference to enthusiastic support. There was no attempt to curb the forces or sabotage them. The Ukrainian army went on strike in its bases and there were few, pathetic civilian demonstrations of protest. In order to secure the airport of Simferopol, Crimea's capital, the Russians required two infantry patrols, two soldiers in each one. That's all. In order to secure the regional parliament, they required less than a platoon, and even that was discharged half a day later.
In other words, a vast majority of Crimea's residents accepted the invasion as an established fact. There were no white flags raised over the city's rooftops, only Russian flags, and all the Ukrainian flags disappeared at once.
About two-thirds of Crimea's population define themselves as Russian – in their language, in their culture, in their identity. Practically all of them were glad to return to the arms of Mother Russia. Some had enough of the failed regime in Kiev, and hoped that Russia would infuse money, building initiatives and masses of tourists to the peninsula – Crimea has good weather, beaches and mountains; there is potential – and there were those who feared oppression and war. If they are sentenced to live under Russian rule, it's better to do it peacefully.
Let's put the results of the hasty referendum conducted by the pro-Russian puppet regime aside. Such tricks in a national democracy are no more than a sad joke. The regime is worthy of ridicule, but one cannot deny the majority's will. In its territory, Crimea is similar to Israel within the ceasefire lines – some 26,000 square kilometers (10,000 square miles). In global terms, it is half a pin on the world map. Anyone involved in the international crisis assumes that Russia will continue to control it, in a certain format or another. Historically, Crimea was part of Russia. It was added to Ukraine in 1954 as part of an internal arrangement in the Soviet Union. Now it's coming home.
Ukraine too close to heart of EuropeIt's not Crimea that President Obama and the European Union heads are worried about at the moment, but other troubling questions. They managed to repress Putin's previous invasion, of Georgia in the summer of 2008. Ukraine is too close to the heart of Europe.
The first question is: Where is Putin headed? Will he settle for Crimea or will he invade areas in eastern Ukraine, whose residents are hoping for an invasion; is he being dragged, willingly or because he is getting carried away, into a campaign which will end in a complete takeover of Ukraine.
One can understand why Russia is sensitive towards the policies of the countries it borders. There is a legitimate security-related concern here, responsibility towards Russians living there, and a long history of patronage and involvement. But a military occupation is a problematic measure. It claims prices.
The second question is: What is happening with the power of deterrence of the United States and NATO? If the US is incapable of deterring Russia from using military force in the heart of Europe, what's the use of NATO? How will countries like Poland and the Czech Republic, which used to be Russian satellites and decided to join the West, exist? President Obama is under harsh criticism on this issue from right-wing spokespersons in America. Justifiably or unjustifiably, he is being portrayed as a president with no foreign policy, a president with no red lines.
The third question is: How will the invasion affect the relations between Moscow and Washington? The sanctions Obama imposed on Russian officials are a mockery. The European sanctions are more painful, but Putin will take them in easily. The question is how far will the West go with economic and diplomatic punishment if Putin remains adamant. Russia is more vulnerable to sanctions than it was in the Soviet era. Putin is walking on thin ice. So is Obama. The possibility of renewing the Cold War is in the horizon.
The fourth question must concern us too. After World War II, Europe's borders stabilized. When wars broke out, in Yugoslavia for example, or when the Soviet Union fell apart, the borders remained unchanged. The world powers are the guarantors of Ukraine's borders. Any change in them casts a doubt on the sanctity of international guarantees.
Russia is a superpower. Superpowers have their own degrees of freedom. Take China's invasion of Tibet, for example: The Chinese occupation was a much more insolent, criminal act than Putin's occupation of Crimea. Nevertheless, the enlightened world accepted it. It did not accept the occupation of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein.
Quite a few Israeli politicians are following Putin enviously. What is he doing to Ukraine, what is he doing, and why aren't we doing it: Why don't we conquer Gaza tomorrow morning, why don't we annex the West Bank tomorrow morning. They had better calm down: It's still unclear whether Putin will emerge from his aggressive move in Ukraine as a winner, but even if he does, he is not the person who should serve as an example to us. Our Putins should be warned like viewers of circus shows are warned: Don’t try this at home.