Crimea — a peace prize or a head fake?

by Martin Schram

Negotiating a true peace in the middle of a horrendous war is sometimes a task for only the feint-hearted.

This moment in Ukraine’s war to repel Russia’s invaders may be one of those times.

And Crimea, where no combat is happening, may become the key prize that can make a Ukraine-Russia peace happen. We’ll see.

It all just began this week, with the whole world watching — but with few viewers actually seeing it for the potential turning point it can be. After all, we couldn’t see behind the closed doors, couldn’t hear the global conference calls in which the on, then off, then on-again deal was finally done at last to send tons of powerful U.S. and German tanks and loads of armored vehicles to Ukraine. (And hopefully, Vladimir Putin couldn’t hear any of that either.)

What Putin and all the rest of us heard Wednesday was President Joe Biden announcing the United States will be sending Ukraine 31 of its huge, complex, fuel-guzzling M-1 Abrams tanks (date of arrival unspecified), plus Bradley armored vehicles. And we heard Biden thanking German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (who had been wavering) for agreeing to send Germany’s excellent, easier-to-use Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine — and importantly for permitting other European nations to send their Leopard 2 tanks too.

Hearing that, Putin (who will never forget the shame of seeing his tanks burning and abandoned in Ukraine) instantly knew two things:

(1) All of those Leopard 2 tanks will soon be in Ukraine, pounding the hell out of his inept Russian troops.

(2) All of those Abrams tanks will eventually be in Ukraine, blasting Russian’s troops, who will be struggling to hold territories in eastern Ukraine.

That, of course, caused Putin to wonder: What else will Ukraine be targeting with all that U.S. and NATO military power? And probably: Will they dare try to take back Crimea?

Now White House Situation Room insiders are talking about Crimea with CNN “Situation Room” outsiders. And you better believe Putin doesn’t have the faintest idea whether or not this is a real threat or just a feint.

Time Out: To understand where all this is headed, you need to recall what Crimea means to Russia’s flailing and failing president. It represents glory lost and (he thinks) regained. It all goes back to the run-up to Putin’s plan to make 2014 his best year ever as Russia’s ruler. Putin spent a fortune to host the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, hoping the glory would remake Russia as a major player in the global economy when he hosted the G-8 world economic leaders that year, also in Sochi. But Ukraine ruined his triumphant moment — turning its back on the Kremlin and seeking to forge prime trade relationships with Europe. In a flash, a shamed Putin seized Crimea from Ukraine. Of course, the G-8 canceled its Sochi summit and banned Russia, creating today’s G-7.

You need to also recall that the collapse of the Soviet Union left Putin forever scarred. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, he was the lone man in the KGB’s Dresden, East Germany, headquarters. Putin couldn’t even get Moscow on the phone and a crowd surged outside. Putin felt abandoned, but he bluffed. The small, unobtrusive Putin confronted the crowd, told them Soviet troops with guns were inside — and would shoot them if they didn’t go home. The crowd fell for Putin’s feint and fled.

So Putin knows a feint when he sees one. Yet he also knows his military has failed him in Ukraine. So what if the West really plans to recapture Crimea? Can Putin trust his Russian troops to safeguard the prize they seized for him in 2014 while the West did nothing? What if all this talk about Crimea is not just a feint? What if Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Joe Biden and all those NATO leaders are massing all those tanks — and maybe U.S. airpower will come soon —— for an offensive aimed at retaking Crimea. Putin cannot bear losing the centerpiece trophy in his showcase of international criminality.

Making Crimea the bottom line for negotiations was the Biden planners’ bottom line when I first began asking about it. Now it’s the secret that everyone knows.

“The problem is Putin,” America’s former ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” audience Thursday. ” … If he thinks he’s going to lose Crimea … that’s when he starts calling European prime ministers and presidents and saying: ‘We’ve got to do a deal.’”

And Crimea is the deal that must be done.  This can be the one war-ending deal that is a sort-of win-win for everyone. Everyone wins something; everyone loses something. And we all end this war that has become a disaster for everyone.

Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at martin.schram@gmail.com.