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Editorial: Russian imperialism ought not be tolerated

Published 10:02am Thursday, July 24, 2014

The leading nations of the world need to hold Russia accountable for its support of rebels in the country of Ukraine, and that means placing harsh sanctions on Russia.

Not mild sanctions on some wealthy people and companies in Russia. No mediocre embargoes on minor commodities. We are talking about sending a true message to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his supporters that the world will not tolerate a land-grabbing bully, one whose militaristic actions have resulted in the death of 298 people aboard Malaysian Airlines Flight 17.

Putin needs to realize that to secure Russia’s borders, he needs to change his nation’s historical course. He needs to form alliances with his neighbors, not intimidate them.

The country has a centuries-old history of taking land from its neighbors, whether it was persecuting Cossacks, Turks, Tartars, Finns, Poles, Mongols, indigenous tribes of Siberia, the peoples of the Caucasus, Ukrainians and, for that matter, all of Eastern Europe during the Soviet era.

Many countries after World War II step by step turned away from the colonial world view, yet Russia — in the form of the Soviet Union — never did. Yes, after the Soviet Union fell, many countries such as Ukraine gained independence, but Russia, the world’s largest country, still feels the need to add land, as though Putin believes the expansion of the country reflects strong leadership. He is wrong.

Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea and its support of ethnic Russian rebels in Ukraine remind historians of Russia’s classic behavior. It has been pushy to its neighbors and never seemed to understand the world is done with imperialism.

It could be argued Russia still owes land to Finland, particularly the city of Vyborg, which had a flourishing economy before the Red Army invaded during World War II. Russia, with its empire-building approach, never did return several northern Japanese islands following World War II. It swallowed the country of Tuva in 1944. There are many examples where Russia has changed the map of Europe to its favor, such as the westward drift of Poland or the Western betrayal of Eastern Europe to the Soviets following World War II after having betrayed Eastern Europe to Nazi Germany.

In recent years, Russia has fanned the flames of upheaval in Georgia, Moldova, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, in addition to Ukraine, as its mean of intimidating neighboring leaders that Moscow disfavors. Russia is the regional bully.

Russia would be more secure if it made allies with its neighbors and did less to stoke the fires of ethnic nationalism. If so many people of varying ethnicities can reside peacefully in Russia, then surely Putin can understand that ethnic Russians can reside peacefully in Ukraine and other lands. How many times has Russia, Russian Czars or the Soviet Union forcibly removed landowners so that Russian people could take over? Countless times. Ukraine has not treated ethnic Russians within its borders that way.

America is by no means perfect, but its efforts to cooperate with neighbors and establish ties worldwide produces a safer Western Hemisphere. Imagine how Russia could make much of the globe so much safer by halting its imperial view and adopting a 21st century priority-on-peace approach.

That’s probably not going to happen until Putin is out of office. Russia classically lags decades, even a century, behind the Western World in policies, then makes sudden lurches forward when a new leaders emerge to save the country from economic or military ruin.

Meanwhile, the world sits back and does little, as they have done all too many times before.

This time, it should be different. This time, the world needs to send a message. Harsh sanctions — regardless of Russia attempting to invoke its own return sanctions — ought to be the order of the day. The punishment must fit the crime.

Otherwise, if Russia gets away with it, Putin becomes encouraged to continue his disturbing ways.