The best quote comes from John McCain. Really!
He said, "When I looked in Putin's eyes, I saw three letters, K, G, and B." Yes, Putin is KGB, and that's probably the key to everything.
Imagine you're in the Kremlin, looking out at the world through Putin's eyes. The country you grew up in was a superpower. But it collapsed. You watched the West rush into the power vacuum, enlisting the nations that once were Russia's sphere of influence—East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and a whole bunch more. Even countries that had once been part of the USSR—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. With your training, and your worldview, it looks like a vast, long-term series of CIA operations designed to encircle and permanently enfeeble Russia.
On the one hand, this seems to be giving vastly too much credit to the CIA. It was reported by a US senator on the intelligence committee that the CIA had assured the committee, just two days before it happened, that the Russians would not invade. What's surprising is that anyone is surprised. The CIA has missed or misunderstood almost every major political event since the start of the Korean War. Getting things wrong is apparently the norm for them. If they got something right, that would be cause for astonishment. It should be weird that no one has called for abolishing an institution with such a track record. But historical amnesia and treating each major error as a unique and aberrant anomaly is another norm.
The term "CIA" is frequently used as a colloquialism to refer to what's called the intelligence community. Together, they spend about $75 billion a year.
One of them, the NSA, specializes in electronic eavesdropping. It has listened in on at least "35 world leaders," including Angela Merkel, according to the Guardian. But not Vladimir Putin? The Washington Post states that the agency "has built a surveillance system capable of recording '100 percent' of a foreign country's telephone calls." Astonishing feats. In the face of them one can only exclaim, "WTF! You can do all that and still not find out anything important! Seriously?"
Still, through intelligence or the lack thereof, the US and its friends in the EU have moved steadily east.
If you watched the events in Ukraine unfold—before the Crimean crisis—on CNN and CBS you saw a celebration of freedom, a spontaneous coming together to express the will of the people from all walks of life.
If you were trained by the KGB and watching from Moscow, you noticed this about the uprising: "How well trained the people who operated in Kiev were...trained at special bases in neighboring states...trained by instructors for extended periods...their actions were coordinated...it was all like clockwork" (Vladimir Putin, Kremlin press conference, March 17).
That may or may not be true. But the long, manipulative fingers of the United States were very much in action. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, a neocon married to a neocon and with neocon in-laws, was on a cell phone with Geoffrey Pyatt, the US Ambassador to Ukraine, apparently unaware that anyone can listen to cell calls. The Russians did. Then they posted it online. What everyone made a fuss about was that Nuland, with diplomatic neocon delicacy, said, "Fuck the EU." But what's interesting about the call is that she and Pyatt were busy picking the next leader of the Ukraine.
Nuland said, "Yats is the guy."
Lo, and behold, Anatoly Yatsenyuk is now the prime minister.
Putin probably didn't mind that. That's what he expects the US to do. That's what he would do. The real problem is that Ukraine is too close. When the Russians put missiles in Cuba in 1962, the whole of America went into a state of hysteria—"Just 90 miles south of Florida!" Ukraine is the same distance from Russia as Canada is from the US. They share a border that's a bit over 1,200 miles. Also, it's hard for Russians to truly accept Ukraine as a fully grown-up, independent nation. Russians own first incarnation, from 882 to 1283, is called Kievan Rus, because Kiev was its center and Ukrainian lands have been occupied, divided, and trampled over through most of its history. Putin is supposed to have told George W. Bush, in 2008, some years after the eye-gazing exchange, "Ukraine is not even a state." He's referred to it, according to the Moscow Times, as "Little Russia."
Nowadays, Brooklyn's Brighton Beach is sometimes called "Little Odessa," but that doesn't really give either Russia or the Ukraine to annex it. Or even some small part of it.
Russia has taken a piece of the Ukraine because it can.
It seems, at first glance, a complete win for Putin. It reestablishes Russia as a threat that must be reckoned with. In theory, it should make all his neighbors more careful and accommodating.
American politicians and talking heads have been crying, "We've lost Crimea." As if it was America's to lose. Long term, and in regard to reality, it makes more sense to say, Russia lost Ukraine, probably forever, even as a friendly neighbor. Although National Geographic picked Crimea as one of its top 20 tourist destinations in 2013, and it has some nice beaches, it's the poor and unproductive tail of a nation that manufactures trucks, and aircraft, and has put its own satellites into space.
The best idea that's come out of the crisis is from New York Times columnist Thomas Freidman. Which is even stranger than the best quote coming from McCain, as Friedman is one of those people who is almost always wrong. Russia's economy rests almost entirely on oil and gas. Freidman's called for a total American commitment to an energy revolution. That would be worth doing. But, of course, it won't happen. It makes too much sense in too many ways.