The situation in the Ukranian region of Crimea today resonates as an eerie combination of the 1966 film "The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming" and Alfred Lord Tennyson's 1854 poem, "The Charge of the Light Brigade."
The American film tells a Cold War story of a crisis that develops when a Soviet submarine runs aground off the New England coast and the population panics when sailors are sent ashore to seek assistance. In the end, the day is saved when person-to-person contact results in friendships that overcome the notion that the unplanned incursion by the Soviets is the start of World War III.
Tennyson's poem describes a disastrous charge of British cavalry against Russian forces during the mid-1850s Crimean War fought by Russia against France, Britain and what is now Turkey.
The poem, while recognizing the nobleness of supporting one's country, pulls no punches about the horror of war when it describes "Cannon to right of them; Cannon to left of them ... into the valley of death rode the six hundred."
In the film, the specter of the Russian bear causes illogical panic. In the poem, the ill-advised recklessness of British leaders results in the tragic and senseless death of dedicated troops.
Today, Russian incursion into Crimea cannot be realistically discredited by the fantasy that international law or moral principles should result in international justice.
Short of reliable methods of enforcing international law, the behavior of nations on the global stage is more often determined by raw power than by morality or law.
Russian behavior is no more draconian than our incursion into Vietnam or, for that matter, into Iraq or Afghanistan. It can be accounted for by the geographic fact of life that Russian interests require use of warm-water ports that provide their navy access to the open oceans. The Russian base at Sevastopol on Crimea's southwestern tip is Russia's only warm-water naval base and the Russian navy's primary means of extending force through the Black Sea into the Mediterranean and beyond.
To put it realistically, without a naval base in Crimea, Russian status as a global military power is jeopardized.
In addition to geographic and strategic facts of international life, Russian interests in Crimea are because just more than half of the Crimean population is ethically Russian, speaks Russian, and feels dependent on Russia to protect them from the Ukranian desire to align itself with the West by joining the European Union and perhaps NATO.
Most of the remainder are Crimean Tatars who, having been deported by Josef Stalin in 1944, are fiercely anti-Russian. While Crimea is a semiautonomous region of the Ukraine, it is part of Ukraine's sovereign territory.
It is, therefore, not surprising that the ethnic Russian population of Crimea who are legally citizens of the Ukraine, and who live side by side with anti-Russian Tatars, feel threatened by the recent overturn of the Russian friendly government of the Ukraine by West-leaning factions.
Russian interests are not only driven by military strategic factors, they are driven by the nationalistic push to protect Russian ethnic brothers and sisters.
Today, as the Russian bear, in the persona of President Vladimir Putin, rises up on his hind legs, President Barack Obama issues warnings that "there will be consequences." Clearer heads, however, might recognize that Russian control of the Crimean Peninsula is just as realistically warranted as was the fictional attempt of the Russian sailors in the "Russians Are Coming" film to seek assistance ashore. Clearer heads, moreover, would recognize that American threats of retaliation are just as much of a useless bluff today as was the New Englanders' action (in the film) to mobilize the local constabulary to fight off a Russian invasion.
At the end of the film, the Russian threat is neutralized when individual New Englanders come to understand that more is gained by friendship than by animosity.
Obama should recognize that if Putin called our "there will be consequences" bluff and we displayed our "ace in the hole card" as we did during recent decades in Iraq and Afghanistan, and earlier in Vietnam, as Sen. John McCain is advising, we would be riding once again into a tragic "valley of death."
The truth of the matter is the Russians are not coming. They are just there and will be there for a long, long time. If in some ways they are our enemy, then we should look to the truth explained by a character in another film when the Godfather advises us to "keep our friends close, but our enemies even closer."
Stephen Sloane, Ph.D. is a professor of politics and public administration at Saint Mary's College in Moraga.