Skip to main content

Opinion: Ignore Western hypocrisy, Putin will do what he wants

By Simon Tisdall, Special to CNN
March 7, 2014 -- Updated 1527 GMT (2327 HKT)
Latest opinion polls in Russia show Putin's popularity soaring in the wake of the Ukraine standoff.
Latest opinion polls in Russia show Putin's popularity soaring in the wake of the Ukraine standoff.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • U.S. President Barack Obama has charged Vladimir Putin of breaching international law, writes Simon Tisdall
  • Tisdall: It is Obama, following in Bush's footsteps, who has repeatedly and cynically flouted international law
  • This is the biggest foreign test of Obama's presidency, he writes
  • In many ways, Putin is an unredeemed Cold War throwback, he says

Editor's note: Simon Tisdall is assistant editor and foreign affairs columnist of the Guardian. He was previously foreign editor of the Guardian and the Observer and served as White House corespondent and U.S. editor in Washington D.C. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.

(CNN) -- All the self-righteous huffing and puffing in Washington over Ukraine jars on European and especially Russian ears after the multiple U.S.-led invasions and interventions in other people's countries of recent years. It's difficult to say what is more astonishing: the double standards exhibited by the White House, or the apparent total lack of self-awareness of U.S. officials.

Secretary of State John Kerry risked utter ridicule when he declared it unacceptable to invade another country on a "completely trumped-up pretext," or just because you don't like its current leadership. Iraq in 2003 springs instantly to mind. This is exactly what George W. Bush and Tony Blair did when they "trumped up" the supposed threat posed by the hated Saddam Hussein's fabled weapons of mass destruction.

Simon Tisdall
Simon Tisdall

Like Saddam, the Taliban leadership in place in Afghanistan in 2001 was deeply objectionable. But instead of just going after Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda training camps after the 9/11 attacks, Bush (again abetted by Blair) opted for full-scale regime change. The lamentable consequences of that decision are still being felt 13 years later, not least by Afghan civilians who have been dying in ever greater numbers as the final Nato withdrawal approaches.

U.S. President Barack Obama, a former law professor who should know better, has charged Vladimir Putin, his Russian counterpart, with violating Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, in breach of international law.

Ukrainian tanks are transported from their base in Perevalne, Crimea, on Wednesday, March 26. After Russian troops seized most of Ukraine's bases in Crimea, interim Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov ordered the withdrawal of armed forces from the peninsula, citing Russian threats to the lives of military staff and their families. Ukrainian tanks are transported from their base in Perevalne, Crimea, on Wednesday, March 26. After Russian troops seized most of Ukraine's bases in Crimea, interim Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov ordered the withdrawal of armed forces from the peninsula, citing Russian threats to the lives of military staff and their families.
Crisis in Ukraine
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Photos: Crisis in Ukraine Photos: Crisis in Ukraine
America's military options in Crimea
McCaul: Remove Russia's leverage

But it is Obama, following in Bush's footsteps, who has repeatedly and cynically flouted international law by launching or backing myriad armed attacks on foreign soil, in Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan to name a few, without U.N. security council authorization. It is Obama's administration which continues to undermine international law by refusing to join or recognize the International Criminal Court, the most important instrument of international justice to have been developed since 1945.

And it is Obama's State Department, principally in the person of Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, that fatally overplayed its hand in the run-up to last month's second Ukraine revolution. Nuland's infamous "f**k the EU" comment revealed the extent to which Washington was recklessly maneuvering to undermine Ukraine's elected pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, by backing the Kiev street protesters' demands.

The EU had wanted to take things more gradually, for fear of provoking the very Russian reaction to which the U.S. now so strongly objects. When the foreign ministers of Germany, France and Poland, acting for the EU, negotiated a compromise agreement on February 22 that envisaged early elections, the crisis appeared to have been defused. Russia did not like the deal, but seemed ready to go along.

But within 24 hours, the opposition had torn up the agreement. It forced Yanukovych from power and sacked the government. To alarm in Moscow, where nightmarish World War II memories linger, Ukrainian neo-fascists were among those who seized control. They are now part of the new government in Kiev.

The U.S. almost immediately gave its blessing to what the Kremlin later described as a "coup d'etat" while the EU, knowing this was what Washington wanted, just looked on. Little wonder the Russians were furious at what they saw as a western double cross.

Obama, Putin talk Ukraine crisis
Ukraine's PM defiant and passionate
Clinton compares Russia to Nazi Germany

Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, reflected these worries when he voiced "most serious concern" over Ukraine in phone calls to the French, German and Polish foreign ministers. "The opposition not only has failed to fulfil a single one of its obligations but is already presenting new demands all the time, following the lead of armed extremists and pogromists whose actions pose a direct threat to Ukraine's sovereignty and constitutional order,'' Lavrov said. But it was already too late.

Obama and Kerry seem to have calmed down a little since the crisis first broke. The self-righteous hyperbole about international rights is less evident, though it has not disappeared entirely. Obama has heard the many voices in the U.S. and beyond terming this the worst east-west crisis since the end of the Cold War -- and as the biggest foreign test of his presidency.

So now he's doing what he does best: talking. In his latest phone call to Putin, on Thursday this week, Obama put forward a plan to resolve the stand-off diplomatically. It includes direct talks between Moscow and Kiev, the return of Russian troops to their bases, and the deployment of international observers to ensure the rights of all ethnic groups, including Crimean Russians, are respected.

But don't hold your breath. Putin is in no hurry to back off or back down.

He has his tail up after a fortnight in which he exposed the hypocrisy and hollowness of much of western policy and politicians. His behavior, especially in Crimea, has been dangerous, wrong-headed and irresponsible in the extreme. In many ways, Putin is an unredeemed Cold War throwback. He is definitely not the sort of chap one would invite round for dinner, as a former British diplomat commented. The crisis could still explode in his and everyone else's face. But it was not unprovoked.

And the Russian leader has an eye for precedent. Similar battles over so-called "frozen conflicts" and the rights of isolated ethnic groups loom elsewhere on Russia's periphery, in Georgia, Moldova, Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and maybe Belarus and the Baltic states too. Putin is putting down a marker, even as he plays Obama and Kerry for fools.

Whatever they think in Washington, and whatever the financial markets say, it's working for him personally. Latest opinion polls in Russia show Putin's popularity soaring. One of these days western leaders will drop the pious cant, learn to stop under-estimating him, and recognize Russia's leader-for-life as the canny, very dangerous, utterly unscrupulous opponent he is.

READ: Vladimir Putin's media strategy in the spotlight

READ: Opinion: West, did you really expect Russia to ignore Ukraine chaos?

READ: Complete coverage on the Ukraine crisis

Follow live updates

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Simon Tisdall.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 1108 GMT (1908 HKT)
The road isn't easy -- past shelling and eerie separatist checkpoints. But where it leads is harder still.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 1631 GMT (0031 HKT)
Future imports and exports between the EU and Russia are now banned -- but existing contracts, including France's $1.6 billion Mistral-class warships deal, are allowed to go ahead.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
More Russian aggression in Ukraine. More U.S. and European sanctions imposed on Moscow.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 0001 GMT (0801 HKT)
Deadly violence, ongoing tensions and the deliberate downing of a passenger airplane. Though that turbulence is happening far away from American streets -- in Eastern Ukraine -- why should Americans worry?
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
The shooting down of MH17 may finally alert Washington and Europe to the danger of the conflict in Ukraine.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2304 GMT (0704 HKT)
The United States and its allies are angrier at Russia now over Ukraine, but will they do anything more about it -- especially Europe?
The U.S. State Department released satellite images of what it says is photographic evidence that the Russian military has fired across its border with Ukraine to strike Ukrainian military targets.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1540 GMT (2340 HKT)
Some contend that larger weapons have come into Ukraine from Russia.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1437 GMT (2237 HKT)
Background information about Ukraine, the second-largest European country in area after Russia.
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1725 GMT (0125 HKT)
Ukraine's Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin on securing the MH17 crash site and negotiating with the separatists.
Learn more about the victims, ongoing investigation and the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 0700 GMT (1500 HKT)
When passengers boarded Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 last week, they couldn't have known they were about to fly over a battlefield.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 0925 GMT (1725 HKT)
The downing Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 put the pro-Russia rebels operating in Ukraine's eastern region center stage.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
Increased fighting around the MH17 crash scene blocks international investigators. CNN's Kyung Lah reports.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
In the tangled aftermath of the disaster, two narratives have emerged -- one that most of the world subscribes to, and another that Russia and the rebels are pushing.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1229 GMT (2029 HKT)
"Every country, including Russia," must determine whether it is "together with the terrorists or together with the civilized world," Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said.
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Russian President Vladimir Putin bears at least some responsibility for the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.
June 28, 2014 -- Updated 1708 GMT (0108 HKT)
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko says peace is possible if Vladimir Putin is in the right mood.
ADVERTISEMENT