- - 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.

The real question, though, is do either the United States or Russia want to risk a major war over the Crimean Peninsula?

Moscow notes that Crimea is part of Ukraine today only because Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev “gave” it to Ukraine in the 1950s when both Ukraine and Crimea were part of the Soviet Union.

It is argued that it should now be returned, and the snap referendum is meant to show that Mr. Putin is standing up for the right of democratic self determination.

Not so long ago, Mr. Obama hailed the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as an example of “the power of human dignity.”

“There are very few moments in our lives where we have the privilege of witnessing history taking place,” Mr. Obama said. “This is one of those moments. The people of Egypt have spoken, and their voices have been heard.”

Well, say the Russians, don’t the people of Crimea deserve the same right to determine their own future as enjoyed by the people of Egypt?

The confrontation in Ukraine may be viewed in the United States as rather small and inconsequential, and in Moscow as something the West will ultimately do nothing about, but history tells us that it is just the sort of conflict that can escalate — and escalate into something neither side bargained for when it began.

It is time for the two presidents with the most to lose to convene a meeting that will allow the parties to step back, reach something approaching a reasonable solution and finally put the United States and Russia in a position to achieve the “reset” that Mr. Obama promised as a candidate, but didn’t pursue as president.

If he isn’t wise enough or courageous enough to do that now, the world will have to hope that this crisis can drag on without forcing a dangerous confrontation until the United States and the West gets a new leader after the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.

Edward Lozansky is president of the American University in Moscow and professor of world politics at Moscow State University.