Put on your shirt Mr. Putin

I have over the past weeks exchanged views almost daily with friends across the world regarding the situation in Ukraine, and have followed closely different news outlets and social media, to the extent the reporting has been in a language I know.

In doing so I've noticed a major divide in facts and information relied on by different people when forming their opinion. Some say we are indeed witnessing an ongoing “propaganda war”.

A “war” however requires two parties. I'd rather make a distinction between an ongoing disinformation campaign run by the Russian government, and an intense and at times passionate exchange of views and opinions when it comes to whether and how we should react and deal with the difficult situation in Ukraine and particularly in Crimea.

To give an example, to claim that ethnic Russians are escaping Ukrainian persecution to Russia in hoards and simultaneously show as “proof” footage of traffic at the Ukrainian-Polish boarder is disinformation. To express a view that Russians are justified in doing what they do for example because America is an even bigger bully is a statement and a comparison that while inviting justifications, isn't and doesn't even pretend to be more than an opinion.

Today we hear from Vladimir Putin that Russia had to act in Crimea because NATO was planning on taking over Sevastopol. This is as credible as if NATO would invade Cuba tomorrow claiming that Russia was planning on taking over Quantanamo Bay. Neither would risk war through some provocation like this. In this case even less so as most NATO members are in Europe.

The current Sevastopol rental agreement is valid far into 2040s. If any concerns, why not start by proposing early negotiations for an extension, and then see? There is plenty of time - and this would be a bit less intrusive than a military intervention.

We all know the answer.

On hurting peoples' intelligence

Presenting evidence of ongoing persecution against the ethnic Russian population in Ukraine was not easy for Russia to do over the past weeks, and presenting credible proof proved so far impossible. It is however only natural that attempts to frame such proof as well as corresponding claims by Russian media were repeatedly and constantly made, as “protecting Russian people” formed the official base for the military intervention.

Now Putin states in his most recent speech that Russia did not occupy Crimea but preserved the right to protect Russian people, a right it didn't have to exercise. Case closed.

We have read credible stories of more statues of Lenin being brought down in Ukraine. This no one should consider anti-Russian, rather anti-Soviet or anti-communist. I doubt a statue of Mao would have any brighter future in Ukraine, or a statue of Hitler. I was actually more surprised that such statues of Lenin were still standing, after all the crimes the Bolsheviks committed not only against Ukrainians, but also against Russians.

People generally don't like when their intelligence is being hurt. This dislike is not anti-Russian. It applies to anyone hurting their intelligence. There Putin and his advisors still have much to learn.

Russia and Crimea

Should Russia have no say in Crimea? It absolutely should. Everyone I have talked to over the past weeks has supported Russia's right to a naval base in Crimea and a corresponding military presence in Ukraine, within the scope of the Treaty signed between Russia and Ukraine. This Treaty - and its terms - should be respected by BOTH parties, and by the international community. I have so far not heard of Ukraine not respecting it, but still. Ethnic Russians, Tatars etc should live in peace. From what we know, they did.

Views and concerns of an important neighbor should be listened to and good relations cultivated, for mutual benefit. This is common sense and can be achieved without roles of a puppet and a master. I have not heard of or witnessed Ukraine attempting to adopt the stance of Cuba when it comes to dealing with a large and powerful neighbor. I find it hard to believe that any Ukrainian government would ever do this, as it would only be as self destructive as in the case of Cuba. Why do some people automatically assume that Ukrainians suddenly are not smart enough to realize this?

An option to flexing of muscles

What should Putin do? I don't know the man, but so far I only recognize action closely resembling that from any stereotype KGB handbook, such as ensuring a new local Crimean Government at gunpoint - headed by a person who's party got only 3-4 % of the votes in the most recent local elections - that then invites Russian military presence and declares the peoples' will to join Russia by a humongous margin, after a manipulated vote. It's “deja vu all over again”, as Yogi Berra put it.

Many years ago I saw a large but simple and understated billboard advertisement at a Swiss airport, saying “Money talks. Wealth whispers.” I believe there is something to that. If one is in good shape, one does not need to flex one's muscles to make the point.

South Africa used to be an isolated and much criticized country due to its apartheid policies. In my youth it was close to impossible to ever read or hear anything good about it. It regularly bullied its neighbors in an effort not to change anything. It had the worst possible image.

Today it is one of the most respected and influential countries on the African continent, to a great extent thanks to Nelson Mandela and his policies. In achieving this change, Mandela never posed without a shirt and never flexed his or the country's muscles to appear a strong or credible leader. He didn't have to.

Mandela recognized that his country had an image problem – a well deserved one - thanks to its past and he dealt with that. He didn't deny it. Hence the “Truth Commission”, among other. There was no more any separate South African truth vs. that of the rest of the world, or any white truth vs. the black truth. Just facts and information, absent propaganda. Apologies and subsequent corresponding forgiveness.

No doubt there is more than one way to achieve respect, positive recognition and power as a nation, to be heard in the international arena and to protect one's interests and one's citizens. I hope that future Russian leaders will recognize this. The policies currently promoted only lead to unnecessary and long term tension and animosity, at a potentially huge cost to Russia and other nations alike.

Wise Ukrainian politicians will continue seeking a dialogue, even if turned down, staying away from any Cuban style demonstration policies. Which policies I doubt anyone encourages. While focusing on those that bring Ukrainian people together, fight corruption and enable economic growth and prosperity for all and in all parts of the country.

In fighting corruption I can well understand those Ukrainians who turn their eyes westwards, as opposed to Russia. I think indeed most Russians understand this, they are not stupid either.

This should be the Ukrainian challenge, this is where they should prove themselves and where we should provide support – or “tough love”, as Madeleine Albright put it - not a war potentially forced on them.

Mr. Putin, put on your shirt and put down your arms.

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