- - Tuesday, March 11, 2014

It is essential that those working to damp down foreign crises understand the perspectives of the parties involved. This sounds obvious enough, but isn’t always the case.

As Russia and the United States face off over Ukraine, this country’s political leaders embrace a narrative far different from what Russian President Vladimir Putin claims is going on over there.

Western policymakers see Mr. Putin as the only bad guy on the scene as he moves Russian troops into the Crimea and prepares to annex the Crimean Peninsula to “protect” the Russian speakers living there. They see aggression pure and simple and are seeking ways to make Russia pay.

The rhetoric in this country reflects the U.S. acceptance of this narrative. Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton cavalierly compares Mr. Putin to Adolf Hitler while leading members of Congress ruminate on how best to punish Russia, and President Obama moves military assets into the region in case things go from bad to worse.

The Russians and their friends in Crimea look at the situation from a very different perspective. Most of them see the new leaders of Ukraine as radical, anti-Russian nationalists more interested in getting back at Russia for the sins of Soviet-era communists who starved, tortured and killed as many as 7 million Ukrainians. They fear that the new Ukrainian leadership wants retribution.

While American politicians describe Mr. Putin as Hitler-like, Russians in Crimea are convinced that real neo-Nazis are pulling the levers in Kiev.

Hard-line anti-Russians occupy important ministerial positions in the new Ukrainian government in spite of U.S. attempts to keep them out.

Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland managed to keep the notorious extremist Oleg Tyahnibok, head of the Svododa Party, out of the new government, fearing that his presence could damage the public face of the new regime.

However, it turns out that Mr. Tyahnibok’s people won a few important ministerial positions. Of even more concern, however, is the presence of Dmitry Yarosh, the real muscle behind the coup that overthrew Ukraine’s pro-Russian elected government.

Mr. Yarosh leads a paramilitary organization that actively recruits and arms hard-core skinheads and ultra-far-right nationalists.

He has called on Chechen separatists led by Doku Umarov, who is on the U.S. terrorist list, to join him in a war on Moscow. There is even reliable information that some of his people may have access to “Igla” shoulder-fired missiles, which are comparable to American made “Stingers” and can be used to take down aircraft.

Mr. Yarosh has been appointed to a key security position, and may turn out to be the real power behind the throne in Kiev.

Russian leaders far predating the Communist Revolution have sought two things. The first is a warm-water port, which they have at Sebastopol in Crimea, and the second is a buffer zone between mother Russia and the West to protect Russia from invasions that have so often come from that direction.

The loss of Ukraine has to be seen by Mr. Putin as huge and worth risking much to avoid. Whether he is driven by a desire to reconstitute the old Soviet Empire, simple aggressiveness, a response to a perceived Western lack of will or a genuine desire to protect his fellow Russian is important in framing a response to Russia’s current move on Crimea and Ukraine.

Mr. Putin must also understand that the fear the West and particularly, the Baltic states and the nations of Eastern Europe, suffered under the expansionism of the Soviet Union forces them to do everything they can to thwart Russia’s immediate goals.

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