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Global political climate gets chillier

ALBANY HERALD EDITORIAL: Developments in Crimea are reminiscent of the Cold War of the last century

The global political climate may be changing, and in a way that brings a disturbingly familiar chill to the air.

For some time, China and Japan have been at odds over some islands that would be of little significance except that each of the two countries lays claim to the group as being its territory.

Now, the United States and Russia appear poised to update a page or two out of the old Cold War book.

Those of us who are Baby Boomers can remember growing up in an era in which we worried that a mushroom cloud could pop up on the horizon at any time. The 1960s were the height of the Cold War, a time when it seemed like the smallest provocation could easily escalate into an exchange of nuclear strikes that would render the planet uninhabitable. Unlike kids today who are growing up in an era in which America’s enemies hide in small groups with no national calling, we knew who the greatest threat was in the 1960s, and it had a Russian accent.

While that changed in the 1980s with the collapse and dissolution of the Soviet empire, there have been indications from time to time that leaders in Russia — including the current president, Vladimir Putin — long for a return to the days when the Soviet Union stood toe-to-toe with the United States in the area of global influence.

After a pro-European movement that caught fire late last year resulted in violent protests, particularly in February, the Ukrainian Parliament determined that Russian-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych was unable to perform his duties and called for an election in late May. Last weekend, Putin requested and — not surprisingly — received permission from the Russian Parliament to send troops into the Ukraine.

The hot point so far has been Crimea, an autonomous republic in the Ukraine that is heavily populated by ethnic Russians (who comprise about 17 percent of the total Ukrainian population). The Russian Black Sea Fleet is in Sevastopol under a lease that runs nearly 40 more years.

Convert Russian military forces have entered Crimea (Putin claims the uniformed troops which are without insignia are local self-defense forces), taking control of the region while the Russians had a show of force in the form of war games just off the border. This got U.S. and European Union officials concerned enough to begin formulating sanctions against Russia, which is acting under Putin’s claim that the Ukrainian government is illegitimate and that any government elected in May would be equally illegitimate in Russia’s eyes.

All of this did what one might expect. Talk of sanctions and economic retaliation by the Russians knocked off about $60 billion of the value of the Russian stock market, oil prices rose sharply as concerns rose over supplies from Russia that could be interrupted by sanctions and rhetoric between Europe and the United States on one side and Russia on the other ratcheted up as Western governments became concerned that Russia was laying the groundwork for a deeper invasion into the Ukraine.

On Tuesday, tensions eased a bit after Putin called a halt to the war games (at least for now) and stated that employing Russia forces (or, more Russian forces if you don’t buy the “local self-defense forces” farce) would be a “last resort.”

Markets reacted positively to Tuesday’s developments. Whether things will start to calm or it is merely quiet before a storm is anybody’s guess. The European Union has an emergency meeting set for Thursday for discussion of the situation.

But clearly Russia sees the change of direction in the Ukraine to a more Western friendly one as a threat to its security and Putin is acting to bring the country back in line. Already Russian energy providers are taking action to make gas more expensive to Ukrainians, which has U.S. officials working to create a $1 billion to the Ukraine government to soften the blow.

Russia has interests in the Ukraine, but the Ukraine, as an independent nation, also has the right to chart its own destiny — a right that the United States, the European Union and other free nations are obligated to support. The proper venue for these issues to be worked out is the realm of diplomacy. A violent military solution would only further destabilize a world that already is short of stability. It is, indeed, a chilling thought.

— The Albany Herald Editorial Board