Last weekend, a friend and I were discussing the situation in Ukraine, wondering if Russia’s Vladimir Putin would pull the trigger on a full-scale invasion after successfully annexing Crimea and twerking his contempt of the international community’s condemnations. One idea we kicked around is that Putin could reap considerable diplomatic rewards by sitting pat, keeping his troops involved in ominous “military exercises” on the border, and spending the summer crowing about how the West kept embarrassing itself by falsely accusing him of being an invasion-happy monster. He could even have operatives stir up trouble in eastern Ukrainian cities, filling global media with panicky warnings that the dread casus belli for a Russian invasion had arrived… but then do nothing, other than complain about unfairly the world was judging noble, peace-loving Russia. That would actually be a better demonstration of “soft power” than anything the hapless Obama Administration has ever done.
But I rather doubt Putin is a “soft power” guy. His media have worked up a lot of hard feelings among the Russian people toward the “fascist” Ukraine government and its shabby treatment of ethnic Russians who live beneath it. The combat strength Putin is massing on the border – reportedly anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 troops, with the Ukrainians tending to make the higher-end estimates, although American officials agree that a sizable build-up of Russian forces is still under way – would be difficult to keep in place for long without creating unrest over the cost of operations among Russians who currently give Vlad sky-high approval ratings. Perhaps this is all part of an effort to intimidate the Ukrainian government into making some sort of concessions to Russia, but if so, it would be difficult for Putin to maintain such a concentration of forces for long, just because he wants to look tough.
Over the last few days, the sense that Russia is going to do something with those troops has grown, buttressed by the observation that this growing “military exercise” doesn’t seem to involve much exercising – other than concealing their positions and setting up supply lines, that is. After trying a few days of whiny nerd rage, in which he sounded like a little kid trying to convince himself he’s better than the bully who just took his lunch money – i.e. calling Russia a “regional power” that only seized poor little Crimea out of weakness – President Obama shifted tactics and started begging Putin to pull his troops back. CBS News reports:
“It’s well known and well acknowledged that you’ve seen a range of troops massing along that border under the guise of military exercises. But these are not what Russia would normally be doing. And, you know, it may simply be an effort to intimidate Ukraine or it may be that they’ve got additional plans,” Mr. Obama said.
To resolve and de-escalate the situation right now, Mr. Obama said Russia needs “to move back those troops and to begin negotiations directly with the Ukrainian government, as well as the international community.”
I can’t think of anything that would make Putin less likely to de-escalate the situation than this, especially since Obama followed up with a bit of armchair psychoanalysis:
Mr. Obama said Russian President Vladimir Putin has been “willing to show a deeply held grievance about what he considers to be the loss of the Soviet Union.”
“You would have thought that after a couple of decades that there’d be an awareness on the part of any Russian leader that the path forward is not to revert back to the kinds of practices that, you know, were so prevalent during the Cold War but, in fact, to move forward with further integration with the world economy and to be a responsible international citizen.”
Mr. Obama said Putin considers the breakup of the Soviet Union to be “tragic.”
“There’s a strong sense of Russian nationalism and a sense that somehow the West has taken advantage of Russia in the past and that he wants to, in some fashion, reverse that or make up for that.
“What I have repeatedly said is that he may be entirely misreading the West,” Mr. Obama continued. “He’s certainly misreading American foreign policy. We have no interest in encircling Russia and we have no interest in Ukraine beyond letting the Ukrainian people make their own decisions about their own lives.”
“What I have repeatedly said is that he may be entirely misreading the West?” Tough talk there, champ. I’m sure the Russian strongman who threw you face-first out of the Middle East feels just awful that he might have misjudged you.
If anyone’s doing any misreading here, it’s Barack Obama – the man who made a fool of himself over Russia during the 2012 campaign, while his loyal media cheered him on. Putin is many things, but he’s not a shivering neurotic who thinks American armor might soon be rolling through Moscow if he doesn’t build up enough of an Eastern European buffer zone. Everything Russia has done is coldly logical, taking advantage of a weak American president to expand its sphere of influence, send strong “no worse enemy, no better friend” signals to potential clients, and work on its grand project of building a “Eurasian Union” to counter the European Union. Vladimir Putin invades Ukraine and seizes Crimea to protect Russian strategic interests, and secure the safety of Russians living beyond his borders. Barack Obama leaves American ambassadors to die in Libya, then concocts fairy tales about video protests to keep his media courtiers busy. Which one do you want in your corner, uncertain leaders of lesser powers?
Obama called on other NATO members to increase their military contributions to keep it from becoming what reporters called a “hollowed-out force.” That’s a lot to ask of hollowed-out nations, many of which are hovering just above basket-case status, while the stronger European countries bleed their economic strength into various junk-bond nations. For that matter, Obama is presiding over the consumption of American military strength by his own carnivorous deficit state. He just killed the highly successful Tomahawk and Hellfire missile programs, began a dangerous slashing of Army strength, and has the Navy babbling about the need to “go green” with super-expensive algae fuel while it cuts back on Marines, as Senator Ted Cruz pointed out in Armed Services Committee hearings on Thursday:
Putin the chess player doesn’t see anything lined up to stop him from taking some, or all, of Ukraine – not when the white knights are feeding their horses algae, the white rooks have sold to pay for food stamps, and the white bishops are busy inventing phantom customers to make their health-care schemes look less unpopular. The condemnation of the United Nations has already been priced in; Russia can handle another few Strongly Worded Letters after its troops roll across the Ukraine border. If a Russian-organized counter to the EU takes off, no one’s going to remember a few stormy U.N. votes, with billions of dollars in commerce on the line.
The only real question is whether Putin is satisfied with taking Ukraine. He might feel very tempted to call NATO’s bluff and see if he can collapse the alliance by forcing it to sit back and sputter impotently after he finds a few beleaguered Russians complaining about oppression in a NATO state. If all of this was really about asserting Russian prestige abroad, shoring up support back home, and setting the stage for a new economic alliance, it won’t be necessary for Putin to roll the dice by provoking NATO.
You can be certain the U.S. State Department won’t back him down by posting selfies of grinning flacks holding up “United for Ukraine” signs. Putin might just respond with a selfie from Kiev.