March 10 illustrates the point: On that day, Russian forces seized a Ukrainian navy missile station in Crimea. But also on the 10th, three men returned to earth after spending 166 days together on the International Space Station; two Russians and an American. Since then, as we all know (except maybe those who have been watching CNN, which is All-Disappeared-Airliner-All-The-Time) Vladimir Putin ordered, in effect, an invasion of the peninsula. Then he contrived a referendum, with a preordained result in favor of rejoining the motherland, since the majority of the population is Russian-speaking. He wasted no time using the “da” vote as a justification to annex Crimea, ripping it away from Ukraine, which had controlled it since Nikita Khrushchev tossed it aside in 1954.
Here in the West, President Barack Obama and leaders of the European Union have responded with an incremental rollout of economic sanctions and blustered about really bringing down the hammer. Putin responded by putting a few U.S. congressional leaders on a persona non grata list.
As March 10 illustrated, there’s a big problem with this stuff: We and they are far too joined at the hip, so the options are limited. It’s not only the joint efforts in space, but the negotiations over Iran and nuclear arms, and other joint diplomatic and intelligence endeavors, to say nothing of cooperation in containing each other’s massive nuclear arsenals. The Putin-appointed head of a state news agency put it in less than delicate perspective by reminding everyone his country could turn the United States into “radioactive ash.” He forgot to mention that the U.S. also could make his country an ash heap, but we’re still a long way from a return to the full heat of the Cold War. For another thing, there is the clutter of economic relationships that benefit the oligarchs on both sides. You can bet they won’t stand for shenanigans for long.
Another problem is that both sides have flawed arguments. The American insistence that such a military offensive in Crimea is an outrage is undermined by this country’s invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. Putin’s contention that Ukraine’s elected government was overthrown in a coup is certainly arguable. What else would you call it when street riots in Kiev caused the elected president to flee and his opponents to seize power? Or how about the military takeover in Egypt that the administration seems to be quietly accepting, even though the generals are being harshly and blatantly dictatorial? On the other hand, Putin’s claim that he was protecting the Russian-speaking population is pure fabrication. The fears that he is really trying to re-create a glorious new Soviet Union certainly resonate in former USSR satellites that have gone their separate ways. American officials are calling the Crimea annexation a “land grab” that is invalid no matter Putin’s justification, because as Secretary of State John Kerry put it, “that doesn’t legitimize just taking what you want because you want it, or because you’re angry about the end of the Cold War or the end of the Soviet Union, or whatever it is.”
What it is is still another danger on a planet that can ill afford more problems. At the same time NASA is cooperating with the Russians, it’s also funding a slew of studies, such as a new one compiled by a group of mathematicians. It concludes that human extinction in the next thousand years or so is “difficult to avoid” unless the wealthy suddenly decide to share their resources. Like that’s going to happen.
Maybe that’s why new projects on that space lab will include growing a vegetable garden. That should make Michelle Obama happy, and lay the, uh, groundwork for escaping this planet. But they’d better hurry. Continued miscalculations by ambitious world leaders, added to the already-volatile mix, could speed up the extinction timetable.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.