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Isolation won’t work on the happily isolated


The Ukrainian flag flew over Parliament Hill on Tuesday.

As an act of symbolism and solidarity, it was a powerful image. But imagery and symbolism aren’t going very far these days.

In a rational world in the 21st century, a united western front against Vladimir Putin — and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says the West will stand together — would force the Russian leader to rethink his Crimean occupation and self-awarded option to go further.

But it is hard to gather global support to isolate a man who shows every sign of already living in splendid isolation.

There is every bit of evidence that Putin already resides in a different universe, garnering information no one else has, where propaganda becomes truth, and logic and pragmatism go to die — or as German Chancellor Angela Merkel puts it, the Russian president is “out of touch with reality.’’

So, in Putin’s world, the ouster of Viktor Yanukovych was an “unconstitutional coup” aided and abetted by the West, and he had to act to protect ethnic Russians from an “orgy” of radical terrorists.

In his world, it wasn’t Yanukovych who ordered Ukrainian militia to fire on protesters, it must have been a gang of provocateurs.

The Russian troops in control of Crimea aren’t Russian troops at all but local defence forces, and if the West wants to pull out of his G8 meeting in Sochi, that’s OK, he’ll hold a meeting and they don’t have to come, even if he holds a meeting of the G1.

You found yourself hoping the translator was having fun with his words because otherwise, how do you deal with that?

Kerry in Kyiv and the Stephen Harper government here continued to work with allies within the rules of 21st century diplomacy, calling for a de-escalation and talks with Russia through existing legal, political and diplomatic institutions, where differences are negotiated and agreements reached.

Both Washington and Ottawa sought to convince Putin that his Russian boots on the ground could be replaced by international observers deployed by the United Nations or the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe so that Russians could be protected, should that be his legitimate concern.

Of course, he will never agree to that because Putin doesn’t play by 21st century rules. Neither does his ally Bashar Assad in Syria or North Korean leader Kim Jung-un or Chinese leader Xi Jinping, whose increasingly bellicose claims to territory in the East China Sea may be the next conflict against which 21st century diplomatic rules are tested.

In Ottawa’s eyes, at least, neither does Iranian president Hassan Rouhani.

No one appears more frustrated with this than Harper, who told the Commons on Tuesday that a major power has invaded and occupied a neighbour under the pretext of protecting their nationals, “something we haven’t seen since World War II.”

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has twice likened Putin’s action to Adolf Hitler’s 1938 invasion of Sudetenland, part of the former Czechoslovakia.

“The pretexts Putin uses for these military operations are ludicrous and they’re transparently unacceptable,’’ Baird said. “Canada can never accept and the international community must never accept ethnic nationalist justification for invading a peaceful democratic neighbour.’’

But they are not ludicrous and transparently unacceptable to Putin, who may actually believe them.

Baird was consulting with our recalled Moscow ambassador on Tuesday, following a meeting with Ukrainian ambassador Vadym Prystaiko. Harper was declaring an immediate end to joint military operations with the Russians. He has already announced there will be no official Canadian delegation to the Paralympics in Sochi, he has threatened economic sanctions against Russia and suggested they could be turfed from the G8.

But Ottawa objections in the past, voiced either unilaterally or in concert with allies, have been met by shrugs by Putin.

Baird helped lead a loud objection to Putin’s anti-gay legislation, to no effect. He sided with the U.S. on Russia’s harbouring of Edward Snowden, to no effect.

Famously, Harper went off script last spring before the G8 in Northern Ireland, slamming Putin for supporting the “thugs of the Assad regime.’’

“I don’t think we should fool ourselves,” Harper said, using uncharacteristically blunt language. “Let’s be blunt, that’s what this is — the G7 plus one.”

Putin won the Syrian standoff and so we all went off to play in his Olympic Games and our Paralympic athletes will be back in Sochi on Friday.

The West must continue to play by these civilized 21st century rules, but the isolated — perhaps paranoid — man in Moscow knows so far his uncivilized rules are carrying the day.

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.

 
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