By Steven R. Hurst ,AP
UNITED NATIONS — As world leaders gather at the U.N. this week, the U.S. and its European allies are consumed by efforts to blunt the savage advance of the Islamic State group, to end the raging Ebola epidemic and to make progress in nuclear negotiations with Iran. That’s likely just fine with Russian President Vladimir Putin, since these issues distract from Russia’s presence in neighboring Ukraine.
While attention focuses elsewhere, the Russians are consolidating their annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. They are also deeply involved in turmoil in Ukraine’s east and south, hoping to prevent the country from moving out of the Kremlin’s orbit. Europe and the United States insist the independent nation must be free to choose its own course.
Russia is already enraged over NATO’s having brought former Soviet satellite nations in Eastern Europe and some Baltic nations, once Soviet republics, into the alliance over the past two decades. The Kremlin insists it was promised, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, that that would not happen. It’s doing its best to prevent Ukraine from making the same move.
What’s more, says American University professor Keith Darden: “Their strategy all along has been to argue that what they did in Crimea is not abnormal. Intervention in Ukraine is not unusual for great powers. The U.S. has intervened in Latin America consistently. Ukraine, they say, is their sphere of interest.”
And given the chaos in other areas of the world, says Andrew Weiss, of the Carnegie Endowment, “I can’t say I see the Russian challenges and issues as being front and center. Ukraine, to a degree, already has been pushed out of the public eye by the Middle East crisis and the Ebola epidemic. I don’t think Ukraine will have the same centrality.”
The Russians will likely raise objections to U.S. threats to bomb Syria to take out Islamic State group fighters and facilities. But, since the focus in Syria has shifted from the counter-revolutionary brutality of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Russia’s obstinate backing for him likely will not come to the fore.
Putin, the Russian president, won’t be in New York for the U.N. General Assembly. The Kremlin will be represented by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who, Weiss says, will be on the defensive and unpersuasive as he argues that “Russia is behaving in a normal way in Ukraine.” But Russia’s actions in Ukraine aren’t likely to take center stage at the world gathering.