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Obama’s Russia challenge: Are we more interested in NCAA brackets?

The current dispute about Russia's seizure and annexation of Crimea has generated much TV talking-head and other media analysis and speculation. Here are personal observations from a somewhat different vantage point.

My bottom line: The Russian takeover of Crimea is not an isolated occurrence and should not be seen as such. Russian Prime Minister Putin will push us and our European partners as hard as he can, to gain what he can, until he meets what he regards as firm resistance. He does not want a shooting war with the West. But one could break out by accident or miscalculation.

Some key factors must be kept in mind:

  • Generational and conceptual differences in perception: Secretary of State John Kerry has accused Putin in the wake of the Crimean aggression and takeover, of "19th century thinking in a 21st century world." 

Kerry's statement illustrates a mindset of U.S. policymaking in the post-Vietnam era: That is, that the international agenda had moved from traditional national-interest concepts of policymaking —in which countries could be expected to pursue their own security and economic interests — to cooperative multilateral and global attacks on such common problems as climate change, poverty, eradication of disease, and human-rights abuses. The same mindset was behind President Barack Obama's stated desire for a "reset" in U.S.-Russian relations to allow a shift from adversarial stances to those in which common interests could be pursued. And it also was behind Obama's two-hour-long phone conversations with Putin during the Crimean takeover. Surely reasonable people could talk things through and reach a reasonable outcome. Well, no.

Obama Putin Faceoff - Caricatures

Cartoon by DonkeyHotey/Flickr

Trouble is, only the United States, Canada and some European Union/NATO and other developed countries share the "2lst century" context. China, as we have seen, aspires to global power and Asian domination and is not willing to be constrained by Western-made groundrules that might impede that path. It (as well as India) is not about to see its economic-development stunted, for example, by restrictions on fossil-fuel use. Countries such as Iran and North Korea, with nuclear-armed neighbors, are not about to foreswear their own development of such weapons. China for decades has been asserting claims to offshore islands, not presently under Chinese jurisdiction, and maintaining its historic preoccupation with holding unstable regions within Chinese borders.

Whether governed by czars, commissars, or what might be considered the present czar/commissar governing model, Russia historically has abused human rights domestically, scorned truly democratic institutions and been preoccupied with control of bordering states. Putin has characterized the breakup of the Soviet Union, and spinning off of Ukraine, the Baltic states, Georgia and other now-independent countries, as a great historical tragedy.

A former KGB operative, raised in the Soviet system, he also perceives the United States and NATO/EU countries as adversaries rather than partners. Putin has been more than willing to buy western goods — paying for them withRussian energy exports — and to maintain Russia's place in the G-8 group of leading economic nations. But, in his mind, the U.S. and its European partners remain the greatest threat to Russian security. Thus, in the United Nations Security Council, where Russia has a veto, and in places such as Syria and Iran, Russia has continued the Soviet-era policy of working to thwart U.S./EU aspirations and interests.

  • Ukraine is not an exception: Russia seized territory in Georgia in 2008 and kept it. When a Russian-leaning regime was deposed in Ukraine — after the Ukrainian government had yielded to Russian pressure and renounced an agreement with the EU in favor of one with Russia — Putin was furious. He would not tolerate a Western-leaning Ukraine on Russian borders. Masked Russian troopers then moved into Crimea, where Russia has important naval facilities, and took it from Ukraine. Another slice of Ukrainian territory, abutting Crimea, also was seized. 

The U.S. and EU have responded with modest economic sanctions — referred to as "Obama's pranks" in a tweet by one of Putin's senior colleagues — but have not sent weapons or military advisers to Ukraine. Promises instead have been made of future economic support.  (This brings to mind Adolf Hitler's famous 1930s statement, when warned that German aggression might alienate the Pope: "How many battalions has the Pope?") Until or unless he sees signs that the U.S. and NATO countries might actually counter him militarily, Putin will be tempted to seize other parts of eastern Ukraine and, perhaps, to issue ultimatatums to Poland and the Baltic states to play the Putin game or risk a cutoff, for instance, from Russian energy.

If you are Putin, sitting in Moscow, you see that your Crimean takeover has been easy and that your Western adversaries have not been willing to go beyond words and mild economic sanctions in response. Germany, the powerhouse of western Europe, is particularly dependent on Russian energy. EU countries have been passing through financial and economic trauma. Their electorates clearly have no appetite for riding to the rescue of a non-NATO country on the Russian border. The next logical step would seem to be the annexation of other eastern Ukrainian territory. After all, Crimea and its Russian naval facilities presently have no contiguous border with the rest of Russia. Why not seize more Ukrainian territory which would facilitate that? Chances are the U.S. and Co. would not move beyond words and modest sanctions.

  • Where trouble lies: If Putin grabs more of eastern Ukraine, and we and our partners accede to it or respond weakly, Putin will just keep grabbing more of Ukraine and install a puppet government there. That, in turn, would rouse the West. Poland and the Baltic states would be nearing hysteria. The U.S. and its NATO allies would send troops, planes and materiel eastward.  A new Iron Curtain would begin descending across Europe.

You can argue that Russia is far weaker than the U.S. and its NATO partners and that its economy is overdependent on energy exports, which, over time, could be replaced by those from the West. You could further argue that Russia has more to gain by westernizing its economy and financial system, and in becoming a major player in international institutions, than by engaging in the rebuilding of a shaky Russian empire. But, to Putin, a nationalist obsessed with restoring Russian power and glory, those arguments might seem irrelevant. 

Much media and expert dialogue has centered on "helping Putin find an offramp" (as in freeway offramp) from his Crimean adventure —as if he were seeking one. From here, Putin seems bent on cruising down the freeway until stopped by a traffic cop or a collision.

  • Tough decisions ahead: Obama will need to decide whether he wants to reverse the cuts in ground, air, and sea forces in his current defense budget. Potential adversaries read such cutbacks as reflecting lack of resolve. It is important, now, not only to deter Putin from further adventures in Ukraine but also to convince leaders in China, Iran, North Korea, Syria and terrorist centers that the United States remains strong enough to meet challenges in more than one place at one time.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been criticized for equating Putin's claim that the Crimean takeover was necessary "to protect Russians there" with Hitler's claim that his Sudetenland takeover was necessary "to protect Germans there." But she was correct. There are many pretexts available for use when one country wants to seize territory which does not belong to it. But the invasions and seizures are facts which cannot be washed away or rationalized.

Putin sees us as a country more interested in social media and NCAA bracket-making than in facing its responsibilities as a world leader. It's time to step up, right now, with tangible military assistance to Ukraine and other eastern European countries — and, necessarily, to maintain our own military capabilities at a credible level — lest Putin misread us and overreach. The last thing we need is a war by accident or miscalculation. We need not shout at Putin. Our tangible actions will speak far louder, not only to Putin but also to other national leaders who might be considering doing a Crimea of their own. 

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