The ongoing crisis launched by Russian President Vladimir
Putin has left the Obama administration struggling to figure out how to respond
to three scenarios: First, the possible invasion of Ukraine's eastern provinces
by the Russian troops massed near the border; second, the contingency that
Russia might simply continue to rattle its saber, threatening energy supplies
and stirring up unrest among ethnic Russians in neighboring states; and third, the
fait accompli of the annexation of Crimea. So far the president hasn't offered
The first problem, further Russian incursions, would bring
the crisis to a new level -- it would be impossible for the United States to
contemplate the continued peril to NATO. A lukewarm response from the United
States in such an instance would further undermine the failing confidence of
Eastern European states like Poland and the Baltics, as well as the rest of our
allies across the globe. The latter two problems -- how to address saber-rattling
and the annexation -- are similarly fraught with peril, especially for the
legacy and reputation of President Barack Obama and the Democrats. Robert
Kagan has recently written about this problem, and Democrats are surely
whispering about among themselves.
Putin has continued to the play the role of a risk-taking
autocrat governed by realpolitik even
if his Bismarckian skills are dubious. Obama, conversely, has played the role
of a liberal internationalist, scratching his head as he conferences with German Chancellor Angela
Merkel over the "crazy" Russian leader who doesn't know how to behave
in the 21st century. Hope springs eternal among the "soft power"
advocates when Obama talks on the phone with Putin, but the read-outs from each
side differ markedly: Obama thinks sanctions, scolding, and trash-talking
are working, and therefore Putin is looking for a diplomatic resolution; Putin
says he's telling the president of the dire state of ethnic Russians in the
places Putin presumably wants to Finlandize. One imagines that Putin has
decided he'll show the U.S. President exactly how a "regional power"
can threaten the United States.
But if we take the phone calls, repeated Kerry-Lavrov
meetings, and the facts on the ground -- the latter is what matters most in
geopolitics -- it is plain to see that Putin is not looking for a diplomatic resolution.
Rather, he is signaling that he has no intention of stopping until he is in
control one way or another of his "near abroad." He is at the culmination
of his 15 year strategy to set right what went wrong when the Soviet Union imploded.
He is managing the victor's peace he managed to achieve after the fall of Ukrainian President Viktor
Yanukovych's government while Obama is still trying to help him understand how to
be a modern statesman.
Enter the heroic Poles, who are the only element of the West
actually facing the realities that Putin has created. They are acting according
to the dictates of hard power, and smart power, by building
up their military and asking the United States to
provide troops for Poland, calling for a European
energy union, and inviting
Obama to visit them in celebration of the 25th anniversary of their first
I doubt all this adds up to a covert strategy on the part of
the Obama administration to "lead from behind" again, but rather
another example of the Obama team's penchant for doing too little, too late,
while weak states and would-be allies try to secure their freedom against the
onslaught of aggressive powers. Only this time, the stakes are much higher -- this
is not Libya. Eastern Europe -- NATO members included -- is not like the North
African and Middle Eastern states where democracy and love for the United
States is weak. The security of Eastern European democracies is at the very
heart of our geopolitical strategy. If they are not safe, then the world the United States
has created since World War II is in great peril.
Many analysts have put forth wise proposals for confronting
Putin, calling on the United States to supply armaments and troop deployments to
NATO countries, to implement more stringent sanctions on Russian leaders, and
to immediately begin to attack Russia's near-monopoly on energy supplies to
Europe, the only source of wealth Moscow has to work its will.
But among government leaders, it is the Poles who are
acting. After all, they have been through this before. They have not been
lulled into complacency by the siren song of the liberal internationalists who
think Putin will be talked out of his decades-long mission to restore Russia's
greatness and secure his rule. Maybe their calls will go unheeded -- certainly
the Obama administration pulled the rug out from under them before when it
refused to install missile defense systems on their territory. But we should
applaud them for their realism and boldness, and hope the
Obama administration will be spurred by their initiatives.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images