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 encouraging answers.
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 free elections.
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.
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