While there might not be much to like about Vladimir
Putin, Russia's president deserves respect - the kind of
respect you would show for a hissing cobra in close proximity.
The West is so blinkered by its superiority complex born out
of victory in the Cold War that Mr Putin has long been
categorised, and thus stigmatised, as the dull KGB operative
who owed his ascendancy to having fewer enemies than anyone
else and being in the right place at the right time.
The lesson the West seems incapable of learning is that while
Mr Putin may exhibit all the charm, poise and civility of
your average neighbourhood thug, you underestimate him at
Over the past week or so, he has been at his manipulative
best in dictating the course of the crisis in Crimea while
being careful to avoid too much spillover to the rest of
Loath to acknowledge he has run rings around them, the powers
that be in Washington, London, Paris and Berlin thus have
added reason to highlight his contempt for fundamental
principles of international law.
In truth, his tactical triumph in annexing Crimea without a
shot being fired has so stunned the West that the degree to
which he has outsmarted its leaders is yet to sink in.
In Crimea, he has used ''salami tactics'' in effecting the
annexation slice by slice, thus slowly accustoming everyone
to what was going on. A Huffington Post headline neatly
summed things up: Putin has been playing chess while the rest
of the world is playing chequers.
Things could quickly get out of hand in the provinces of
eastern Ukraine, which contain significant numbers of ethnic
Military intervention in those provinces would be a far
bigger call on Mr Putin's part than the Crimea takeover and
would risk Moscow finding itself locked into a ethnic
There are signs that with Crimea - which has a far bigger
proportion of ethnic Russians than those provinces -
effectively under Moscow's control, Mr Putin will take a
breather before determining whether to further infringe
Ukraine's territorial rights.
Elsewhere, the casualties are mounting, although of a
different kind. Barack Obama has looked and sounded feeble.
What few positives left for him to take from his otherwise
flawed and ordinary presidency are now withering on the
His Secretary of State, John Kerry, has been exposed as a
blowhard who conveys all the authority of a toothless tiger.
Like other foreign ministries, the State Department in
Washington supposedly recruits the best and the brightest.
Searching questions need to be asked as to why its diplomats
did not anticipate what Mr Putin would do after his ally,
Viktor Yanukovich, was forced to flee from his presidential
office in Kiev.
Both Mr Obama and Mr Kerry have since warned Mr Putin that
Russia faces certain, unspecified ''consequences'' unless it
pulls its forces out of Crimea.
The threat is about as empty as it is possible to get. With
military intervention by the West utterly out of the
question, the talk inevitably turned to sanctions, because
they are all you can then talk about. It then becomes
necessary to pretend sanctions will bring Mr Putin to heel.
Otherwise, the West looks impotent. Everyone knows, however,
that the track record of sanctions in removing despots and
demagogues, or at least altering their behaviour, has veered
between the hopeless and the truly pathetic down the years.
Other factors, however, further explain the West's failure to
come up with a coherent and meaningful response to Mr Putin's
First, his actions are the mirror image of military
interventions by the United States - usually with close
allies such as Britain in tow - which have been highly
dubious in terms of international law.
The most obvious and notorious example is Iraq. George W.
Bush's military adventure in that country drained the United
States of all moral authority when it comes to lecturing
other countries. Mr Putin's excursion in the Crimea has
highlighted American hypocrisy. That was bound to happen at
some point and fate has decreed that Mr Obama be the fall
Second, the West's condemnation of Mr Putin is tempered by
the acceptance in many quarters that his actions, while
morally reprehensible, are also understandable to quite a
large degree. In other words, you have to put yourself in
In Moscow's view, Ukraine's role is to serve as a buffer
state. The prospect of a new government in Kiev joining the
European Union or even Nato is beyond the pale, just as would
be the loss of the Russian navy's warm-water port on the
Furthermore, Moscow is refusing to recognise the new
administration in Kiev because it claims, with some
justification, that the democratically elected one has been
overthrown in what amounts to a coup by Ukraine's extreme
In the placing of such obstacles in the way of resolving the
crisis, Mr Putin is using the standoff with the West to push
his wider agenda of restoring Russia to superpower status. So
where does all this leave New Zealand?
The answer is that the tyranny of distance has its virtues.
The bottom-line, and something National and Labour agree on
wholeheartedly, is that New Zealand's small-country status
means it depends on the major powers abiding by international
law and respecting territorial sovereignty. Of course, when
it matters, those countries do the very opposite.
Nevertheless, New Zealand is obliged to condemn Mr Putin's
illegal breach of Ukraine's sovereignty.
New Zealand will probably sign up to any sanctions imposed on
Moscow, more out of the need to show solidarity with the
United States and like-minded European countries than to any
The final stages of the negotiation of a free-trade agreement
have been put on hold - a move probably more to New Zealand's
cost than Russia's. In international affairs, such symbolic
acts speak more than words.
Beyond that, there is not much else that New Zealand can do.
- John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald political