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posted: 3/5/2014 5:01 AM

Losing his head in Crimea

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Vladimir Nabokov considered Anton Chekhov's "The Lady with the Dog" one of the best short stories ever written. For what it's worth, I agree. The plot is a simple one. A womanizing banker from Moscow seduces a young woman at the Black Sea resort of Yalta -- and then, calamitously, falls in love. The dalliance becomes an obsession for them both. They remain married to others but imprisoned by their passion for one another. The banker's name is Dmitri. He was hardly the last Russian to lose his wits in Crimea.

The latest is Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, the president of Russia and, if I may say so, a real dummy. By taking one stupid step after another, he has managed to let much of Ukraine slip from the Russian orbit -- to which, if the Ukrainians have anything to say about, it will never return. Putin can pound his chest all he wants, but the sound emitted is just plain tinny.

Putin's first mistake was to not acknowledge that Russia is -- to resurrect what was once said about the Ottoman Empire -- the sick man of Europe. Since the end of the Cold War, it has lost much of its empire -- all of the old Eastern Europe satellites (Hungary, Poland, etc.) and even countries that Moscow had swallowed whole, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, for example. It has become a corrupt petrostate. Oil fuels the economy and alcohol fuels the population. The U.S. GDP per capita was $52,800 in 2012. Russia's was $18,000.

Nonetheless, Putin leaned on Ukraine to reject an agreement with the European Union and turn to Moscow instead. He succeeded, but this is precisely where things started to fall apart. Instead of merely accepting the reality that the western half of Ukraine is already oriented with Europe, he used muscle -- and a $15 billion loan -- to keep Kiev beholden to Russia. Demonstrators took to the streets, the pro-Moscow Ukrainian government used deadly force and the government was toppled. Putin's guy, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, was last seen in Russia itself. Soon he'll be rooming with Edward Snowden.

It is tempting to talk, as The Financial Times has, of a "second Cold War." This is nonsense. The current crisis is neither an ideological battle nor, even, a tug of war between two competing empires. It is, instead, a revival of the old European game of jostling nationalisms. In Ukraine, Russian speakers do not want to take orders from Ukrainian speakers. In Europe, these matters have usually been settled by ethnic cleansing or population transfers. Putin's preferred method is to effectively annex the Russian-speaking Crimea to Russia itself -- welcome home, Yalta. It is, after all, where the czars and Stalin summered.

The relevant war was not cold but very hot indeed -- World War I. It began for reasons still not fully understood and persisted for four years, illustrating the irrational power of nationalism. Men went crazy. Working-class Germans killed working-class Frenchmen as socialist intellectuals vainly blew a whistle for a timeout. Comrades, get a grip! But the war, like a giant maw, ground on, chewing up millions. A century later, Russian troops are now, suddenly and unexpectedly, in Ukraine. We have a whole new crisis. Where did it come from?

Certainly, Putin does not fear President Obama. (Almost no one does.) But it would be good if he did. Declining empires are inherently unstable. They have glorious histories and dismal futures. They embrace dusty terms like "fascist" and rush to the aid of fellow ethnics who are in no danger whatsoever. German Chancellor Angela Merkel telephoned Putin the other day and found him out of touch with reality. "In another world," she said. He lives, like the Ottoman sultan of old, in a Topkapi Palace of his own creation.

Putin cannot go unpunished. He must be made to pay an economic price and, to the extent possible, be isolated. But reality is sobering. Russia can occupy both Crimea and eastern Ukraine if it so chooses. It has the manpower and it's right on the spot. In realpolitik, as in real estate, location is often all that matters.

Still, Putin has badly played his hand. He lost his influence in much of Ukraine and won, really, what he already effectively had -- Crimea. While there, he should wander down to the esplanade where on a summer's day Chekhov's Dmitri spied a lady with a dog. It was an easy seduction -- followed, as it will be with Putin's, by a lifetime of anguish.

Richard Cohen's email address is cohenr@washpost.com.

© 2014, Washington Post Writers Group

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