March 13, 2014 12:00 am JST

Putin's unhindered advance won't go unnoticed in China


China is claiming hundreds of islands and reefs, along with millions of square kilometers of ocean, from Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam. It also claims most of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. For the countries resisting Chinese demands, events in Ukraine cannot be reassuring. It is already clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin will achieve his aim of changing the borders -- and will not be satisfied with just the region of Crimea. 

     Putin's plan is to separate all the territory east of the Dnieper River into a new state, "Novy Russia," that could become the Russian Federation's 22nd republic. This territory on the east bank of the Dnieper is many times larger than the Transnistria ministate Russia seized from the Republic of Moldova. Transnistria is also separated from Russia proper, while Novy Russia would seamlessly extend Russian territory down to the Black Sea, including Crimea.

     Given the advance warning -- all the detailed planning, down to the design of a Novy Russia flag, could not be kept secret -- the failure to anticipate Putin's move or at least react effectively is very disappointing. First came the empty words: European prime ministers all seemed to use the same speechwriter, because they all said the seizure of Crimea was "unacceptable." Then, by ruling out any counter-move, they made it clear they would, in fact, accept it.

     Carl Bildt, Sweden's foreign minister, tweeted his opposition to Russia's actions. One doubts the tweet terrified Putin.

     The truth is that these days, only Germany counts in Europe, and Chancellor Angela Merkel has no intention of imposing economic sanctions on Russia.

     U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry did not do any better, resorting to the childish playground threat of not inviting Putin to the next G-8 meeting -- soon to be the G-7, perhaps.

     President Barack Obama, for his part, had a long telephone conversation with Putin -- at the end of which the Russian president issued a pair of noes: no, he would not withdraw from Crimea, and no, he would not accept the removal of his favorite Ukrainian president by the Kiev mob.

Off-duty "policeman"

It is obvious by now that Obama is tired and disappointed. If he were a British or Japanese prime minister, his colleagues would vote him out, allowing him to rest. But in the U.S. system he must serve out his full four years, as if it were a prison sentence.

     Obama particularly dislikes having to deal with foreigners -- he cannot even be persuaded to travel to the Indonesia of his childhood, or to Kenya, where he has family. He is even less willing to take risks to assert American power on the global scene. "We are not the world's policeman" seems to be his favorite phrase.     

     In 2008, when Russian tanks were advancing in Georgia to remove then-President Mikheil Saakashvili, the U.S. was much more tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan. Still, George W. Bush did not telephone Moscow. He sent an American warship to the Black Sea -- his better way of saying "stop."

     What does all this mean for China's neighbors?

     The Russians have a huge advantage in Ukraine that China cannot match. East of the Dnieper, there are many ethnic Russians, and numerous Russian-speaking Ukrainians who see their future with Moscow. In many cases, they or their sons work in Russia. They have little in common with the Kiev activists, many of whom hail from the anti-Russia Western Ukraine. Putin can therefore invoke the principle of national self-determination to legitimize Novy Russia. How could the world object if the people vote for the change?

     China will not find separatists on the Senkakus or the reefs of the South China Sea. But Beijing might be tempted to act anyway -- before the usual cycle of American politics replaces Obama with an activist president.

Edward N. Luttwak is a senior associate for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He has served in the U.S. as a consultant to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the National Security Council, the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force. He has also advised a number of allied governments as well as international corporations and financial institutions.