How to Stop Putin in His Tracks: He knows he’s weak. The West must show we know it, too.

Vladimir PutinVladimir Putin attends the closing ceremony of the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi on March 16, 2014. Despite his very public perch, Putin is not as powerful as he wants the world to believe. Photo by Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters

Is the crisis in Ukraine almost over or just beginning? The answer depends on what Vladimir Putin really wants and what the West does next. Did Putin want nothing more than to seize Crimea, to turn Russia’s control of the republic from de facto to de jure—or does he want to creep deeper into southern and eastern Ukraine on the pretext of “fraternal assistance” to ethnic Russians? Either way, two things should be understood. First, Putin’s actions have been driven less by a belief that the West is weak than his knowledge that Russia is. Second, he dreams of restoring Russia’s empire—his March 18 Kremlin speech is, at heart, a cry of resentment against the West for its humiliation of his country during the early years after the Soviet Union’s collapse. A bitter autocrat with a head full of grandiose daydreams can be a dangerous creature.

This crisis began, after all, when Putin took notice that Ukraine—which he and every other Russian leader in history have regarded as deeply tied to Russia—was drifting into the West’s orbit. Then-President Viktor Yanukovych had taken steps toward an affiliation with the European Union. Putin feared, correctly, that this development could wreck his plans for a “Eurasian Union” (which he saw as the basis for a revived Russian empire), and so he offered Yanukovych $15 billion in exchange for backing out of the Western league. Yanukovych took the bribe. Demonstrations broke out in Kiev, prompting crackdowns, prompting a widening of the protests … and the rest, we all know.

Lawrence Freedman, the pre-eminent scholar of strategy, has a long blog post in Wednesday’s War on the Rocks, noting that the “basic challenge of crisis management is to protect core interests while avoiding major war.” Part of this challenge, he adds, involves “a sense of knowing when to exercise restraints and respect limits,” as well as “a grasp of what the adversary needs to enable it to de-escalate or at least to desist from further escalation.”

The first step to take in following this idea—a step that many pundits and politicians have skipped—is to define what our “core interests” are. Crimea is not a core interest to the United States or the West; it is a core interest to Russia. Cold as it may seem to say, Crimea is gone; there’s nothing we can do to get it back, and we—however you define “we”—never really had it to begin with.

However, the forcible annexation of Crimea did violate international law. Specifically, it broke the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, signed by Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom, which—while it didn’t have the binding effect of the North Atlantic Treaty that established NATO—did offer Ukraine security assurances in exchange for giving up the 2,000 nuclear weapons left in its territory as a remnant of Soviet days.

So, yes, it’s worth getting upset about the seizure of Crimea. The things that President Obama and the European Union have done—relatively mild sanctions, the exclusion of Russia from an upcoming G-7 (formerly G-8) meeting, the shoring up of defenses in Poland and the Baltic nations, and presumably more actions of this sort to come—are proportional steps worth taking.

But no one should suffer the illusion that any of this will prod Putin to send the troops in Crimea home (most of them were already stationed there) or give the land back to Ukraine. To pretend that it might—as some of Obama’s rhetoric about “costs” and “consequences” has implied—works only to Putin’s benefit; it makes him seem stronger (he’s withstood the American sanctions!) than he really is.

However, if Putin starts moving troops into southern and eastern Ukraine, the story changes.

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commented 2014-03-21 03:18:56 -0400 · Flag
Dan K. writes:

The thing about the Ukraine situation is that the west knew the desires of Russia to get the Ukraine back into their orbit. The claims that Russia had on the Crimea were well known. Even the words spoken to George W Bush, when Putin said, (I paraphrase) “You know that the Ukraine is not a real country,” showed a dangerous inclination of Putin to interfere with the independence of the Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the Ukraine was in this economic quicksand, and it’s politics corupt.

Both Kissinger and Brzezinski have stated that the Ukraine needs to follow a path as Finland has followed, being neutral, cooperating with both Russia and the West.

So, the objective of the West should have been allowing the Ukraine to integrate with the West, while assuring Russia that this was not an attempt to rob them of their relationship with the Ukraine.

Still, somehow getting past the kleptocracy flourishing in the Ukraine would not have been easy.

However, Obama pulling the rug out from under Poland and the Czech Republic by reneging on the agreement to stage missile defense systems in their countries was stupid, foolish, and seemed to show unilateral weakness on his part. Why give up something for nothing?

While one can fairly say that events in the Ukraine are not easily influenced by the USA, or even Western Europe, there still could have been proactive things to be done to counter the very real possibility that Russia would try hard to reel the Ukraine back into their orbit. These things were simply not done. And, one has to say that the USA, as the world leader, has been asleep at the switch. And, further, one can easily conclude that Obama has been more than asleep at the switch, he has been in a coma, regarding effective foreign policy.

Surely the Russians have been watching Obama’s actions, and have been aghast at his naivete. Obama has been intent on showing how he viewed traditional American foreign policy to be “imperialistic” in nature, and that he would follow a different, passive path. He did this to an extreme, and from day one.

I’m not going to list all the things Obama did to signal his passivity, I’m not a professional researcher, and I think most well read people know that Obama has been extremely naive, letting his foolish, politically correct leftism blind him to the realities of what is needed to be an American president, and actually lead the free world in acting on the world stage in all the situations which are bound to challenge the free world.

Thus, to say that Obama is not at fault for the situation in the Ukraine is not quite correct, I think. I will agree that the Ukraine was not an easy area to assert western power, and that the steps to take would have been preventative measures, acting proactively over the past number of years, designed to discourage any adventurism the Russians certainly had in the back of their minds. However, Obama has been such a weak, passive presidency, constantly telegraphing that he does not consider, he does not want to lead the western world, such as his phrase that he would “lead from behind”, that the Russian assessment of him as being weak surely had to be a key factor in Putin deciding to take over the Ukraine. I really do not think anyone can realistically dispute this. The Russian hierarchy are in open dismissal of Obama and his weakness in their daily press. I do agree with the author, that the loss of the Crimea is not a huge deal. Russia was intent on taking at least the Crimea back, everyone with knowledge of foreign affairs knew this was a risk. And, Russia feels that they were taken advantage of at their weakest point, and further, that the Crimea was included in the creation of the Ukraine was probably a mistake that Russian leaders made at the dissolution of the USSR. I agree with the author that the west needs to focus on stopping Russia from further dismemberment of the Ukraine. We need to be very aggressive in preventing this.

We need to give extremely significant military provisions to the eastern European nations, and put those missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic. We can begin to pull our bases out of Germany, and begin to place them in Poland and the Czech Republic. Germany does not need the bases, and, they need to begin to increase their military capabilities, anyway. American bases in Poland and the Czech Republic will help to defend Germany just as well, or better, than these same bases in Germany.

George Friedman stated that we should help to arm Poland, and allow them to join with the Baltic countries, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania, in forming an alliance to counteract possible further Russian aggression.

Somehow, I doubt Obama will do any of this. It is not a good sign that the leader of America has been missing security meetings at the height of the crisis, and instead has been playing golf in Florida. A real American leader would have been very active in the past weeks, being on the phone with world leaders and hammering together a coherent response from the West. Obama hasn’t done this. In fact, I hear him on the radio, right now, talking about his “picks” for the “brackets”. ……Really. …..Obama is simply ridiculous as the leader of the free world……simply ridiculous, and it is very hard to believe that his failures as a leader of America, as a leader on the world stage did NOT have a huge effect on Putin’s calculations. I simply cannot imagine a president Romney having acted in the ways Obama has. For sure, Romney would not have ditched our allies, Poland and the Czech Republic with the missile defenses. And, I would think that Putin would have thought long and hard before acting so aggressively to take the Crimea, if Romney had been the president.
commented 2014-03-21 02:58:10 -0400 · Flag
D.P. writes:

About vlad ‘taking’, and baraka ‘giving’ (actually abdicating).
commented 2014-03-21 02:56:33 -0400 · Flag
Chris writes:

Weakness is provocative.

None of this would be happening had obama not spread his feeble cheeks in a delusional ‘reset’ with russia (removing missiles from czech republic, abandoning poland, rolling cowardly as georgia is invaded, etc.). The crimean land grab is a direct result of vlad’s correct measure of baraka.
commented 2014-03-21 02:49:42 -0400 · Flag
J.C. writes:

barry & vlad, the former giveth, the latter taketh & the people are collateral damage. They were not, will not be consulted, they do not matter to the players calling the shots.
commented 2014-03-21 02:45:00 -0400 · Flag
Chuck E. writes:

A third-world nation strutting around on the world stage much like its diminutive punk ‘Leader’ struts around shirtless on vacation..
commented 2014-03-21 02:44:07 -0400 · Flag
B.P. writes:

Obama=Liberal Arts College “Prof” pontificating in the Teacher’s Lounge about gay marriage and universal health-care

Putin=KGB Henchman, punk-thug, Stalinist strutting around trying to piece together his lost Empire

Gee…I wonder who has the upper hand in the game of Geo-political Realpolitik chicken…