Welcomed by Greek’s left-wing government of Alex Tsipras, 63-year-old Vladimir Putin visited his first European Union country in six months, avoiding the West under punitive economic sanctions for seizing Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula March 1, 2014. Driving U.S., EU and NATO relations with Russia to Cold War lows, Putin railed against newly installed Aegis “Star Wars” missile defense systems in Romania and plans for Poland. Visiting Greece for two days, Putin and his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hope to nail down energy and transportation deals, despite the gloomy atmosphere with the U.S. and EU. Putin can’t get over NATO installing “Star Wars” missile defense in Romania and Poland. “We keep hearing that it’s no a threat against Russia, that it’s not aimed at Russia,” said Putin, rejecting U.S. claims that missile defense is for rogue states like Iran and North Korea.
Installing missile defense in Romania and Poland has driven U.S.-Russian relations to Cold War lows. Putin doesn’t accept the feeble excuse of defending Romania and Poland from missile threats from rogue states. Since annexing Crimea, former Soviet satellites, Lithuania, Estonian and Latvia, all express growing concerns about Putin’s plans in the Baltic States. Asking for more NATO troops and military hardware, the Baltic States have antagonized Moscow, unwilling to accept that invading Crimea had far-reaching consequences for all of Europe. Since invading Crimea, Putin’s never explained his long-range strategy in the Baltic States and Eastern Europe, especially Poland that had a long history of Soviet domination. No one in Poland or the Baltic States wants a return to Russian domination. Putin’s actions in Ukraine raise red flags all over Eastern Europe.
Putin’s too defense-minded to see how former Soviet satellites are threatened by Russia’s action in Crimea and prior actions in Georgia’s South Ossetia and Abkhazia where Putin annexed sovereign territory Aug. 8, 2008. Former George President Mikheil Saakashvili begged former President George W. Bush to intervene after Putin’s invasion of Georgia. No one at the Pentagon or NATO wanted a confrontation with Putin over a country with little geopolitical significance as Georgia. Failing to confront Putin Georgia came back to roost in Crimea, where no Western government was willing to challenge Putin. Democratic presumptive nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton once compared Putin to Hitler March 5, 2014. Hillary was talking about the fact that no one in the Pentagon or NATO wants to confront Russia over actions taken in Ukraine or a Caucus state like Georgia.
President Barack Obama has shown little interest in engaging Putin in multilateral diplomacy, especially on crucial issues in the Middle East. Obama’s foreign policy directly pits Russia against the U.S.-Saudi-Turkey proxy war in Syria seeking to topple President Bashar al-Assad. Without the proper linkage, Obama finds himself unable to find common ground with Moscow on the most basic issues. If Obama cut Putin some slack on Syria or Crimea, he’d be receptive to reassuring former Soviet satellites he has no intention of seizing more territory. White House officials should put its Star Wars missile defense on the table, something that would open doors with Moscow. “Of course it’s a threat to us. It can easily be modified to have an aggressive capability,” said Putin, rejecting Obama’s explanation that the system is designed to combat rogue states.
Showing flexibility on missile defense would go a long way in re-establishing better diplomatic relations with Moscow. If Putin agrees that none of the past Soviet satellites have any concerns about a Russian invasion, there would be no need for missile defense in Eastern Europe. “The issue of Crimea is over forever, based the will of the people who live there. Russia will never negotiate on the issue,” said Putin, stating emphatically he has no plans to return Crimea to Ukraine’s pro-Western government of Petro Poroshenko. When Western powers backed a coup Feb. 22, 2014, they didn’t consider the consequences of toppling the pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovich. Trapped hosting the Sochi Winter Olympics, Putin watched helplessly as pro-Western faction drove Yanukovich from Kiev. Seizing Crimea March 1, 2014, Putin put the West on notice.
Before Greece accepted a $94 billion bailout July 12, Tsipras was strongly considering leaving the EU and leaning more heavily on Russia. Putin’s trip to Greece recognizes Greece’s strong historic ties to Moscow. “Improving relations with Russia on multiple levels is a strategic choice,” said Tsipras, keeping his options open in the event the latest EU bailout fails. “Of course . . . when the disagreements exceed our powers, we can act a positive influence with the EU and NATO,” said Tsipras, keeping Greece’s options open., including asking the Kremlin for financial help. Putin wants U.N., EU and U.S. sanctions lifted before he decides what to do with the West on a host of foreign policy challenges. If Obama would join Putin’s approach in Syria, it would go a long way in resolving many other issues. Withdrawing missile defense would open up new diplomatic doors with Moscow.