Obama has given two major sets of remarks about Ukraine, one set on teleprompter, the other off. Like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, each was appalling in its own way. It is hard to say which is worse.
The off-teleprompter remarks were delivered at a press conference. The statement that garnered the most attention, and rightly so, was Obama’s assertion that Russia was a mere regional power that is not a threat to the US, and invaded Crimea out of weakness.
Where to begin?
Part of the problem is the man’s preternatural pettiness. He denigrated Russia in part because he will not, cannot, concede that Romney might have been closer to the truth than he was when the Republican candidate named Russia as our number one national security threat, and Obama responded with a snarky “the 80s called and want their foreign policy back.” A bigger man would have given Romney his due. But that would be a different man than Obama.
But the bigger problem is the substance. First, I would be the first to acknowledge that Russia’s military is decrepit and its ability to project power beyond the Eurasian landmass is limited. But the Eurasian landmass is pretty damned big, and Russia’s region includes many areas of vital interest to the United States.
Second, Russia has many other sources of power that transcend those of a mere regional power (like Brazil, say). Most obviously: It has nukes. It has a UNSC veto. It has extremely effective asymmetric capabilities, notably cyberwarfare (conducted in large part through private and criminal elements that work for Russian intelligence out of a combination of patriotic and mercenary motives) and intelligence. (Snowden, anyone?)
Moreover, Putin’s anschluss, and the threatened moves beyond Crimea (not just Ukraine, but reasonably feared in any country with substantial Russian speaking minorities, which includes countries formally allied with the US) upset the entire international order. Not just the post-World War II and post-Cold War settlements, but the principles of international order stretching back to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Turning a blind eye to revanchism and irredentism threatens to unleash similar forces on every continent. The chaos and disorder that would result would present a profound challenge to stability, and the interests of the United States.
Obama appears to believe that it is beneath a stronger power to confront weaker ones. But what is the point of strength and power, if they cannot be deployed against peer adversaries because that would be too costly, and they cannot be deployed against weaker ones because that’s unsporting?
Indeed, if Obama’s diagnosis is correct, and Russia is a weak power (put aside whether the weakness is the motivation for Putin’s aggressiveness, as Obama claims), given the stakes there is a compelling case to deploy American power (mainly economic, financial, and political, rather than military) to squash the weak upstart. Because that would contribute to tranquility throughout Eurasia, and pour encourager les autres.
The formal speech in Belgium was a disaster in different ways. Obama gave a treacly tribute to the bravery of Maidan, and then basically said: “sorry, people, you’re on your own! Good luck! We wish you the best!” He laid out a rather compelling case that Putin’s challenge to the international system threatened dire consequences far beyond Ukraine, but despite this he threatened no measures beyond the oft-repeated gradualism of escalating financial consequences: how many historical examples are required to demonstrate that such gradualism, so appealing in the faculty lounge and think tank, is actually an encouragement to hard men like Putin?
Disgustingly, Obama conceded many of Putin’s arguments, most notably that Russia has special rights in Ukraine due to the longstanding historical relationship between the countries. This is to make modern Ukrainians subordinate to Russia because their forebears provided a patina of civilization to Muscovite thugs, and then suffered centuries of subjugation at the hands of these thugs which at times lapsed into genocide. Yes, the Holodomor was truly the epitome of a special relationship, no?
If anything, the historical relations between Ukraine and Russia provide a compelling case to defend Ukraine against further Muscovite predations, rather than an excuse to consign the country to Putin’s tender mercies.
The speech put more emphasis on what the US won’t do, than what it will. Obama repeated three times that the US will not engage in any military response to Russian aggression in Ukraine. I’m sure Putin got that message, and smiled.
Obama emphasized a desire for continued diplomacy, and de-escalation. Both of which Russia has already rejected, repeatedly. (Look at the picture of Lavrov meeting with the Ukrainian FM. I am sure The Tarantula would have preferred an appendectomy without anesthesia to that meeting.) This is political onanism of the most embarrassing sort.
But there’s more! Not only did Obama conspicuously put Ukraine outside the American security perimeter, he also slammed the door on Georgia, saying that it was not on a path to membership in Nato. Given that Georgia is one of Putin’s biggest bêtes noire, you may rest assured that Putin is going to take this as an invitation.
In sum, the speech signaled a supine attitude that will embolden Putin. Obama appears robust only in comparison to the Europeans, who would have to stiffen considerably in order to become mere boneless wonders (to quote Churchill’s devastating critique of Stanley Baldwin).
Some have claimed that Obama’s speech was tough, both on the Russians and the Europeans. The markets deemed otherwise. Gazprom was up. Sberbank was up. Rosneft was up. Micex was up. The Ruble was up.
And no wonder. Last week’s encouraging expansion of sanctions have been followed by . . . nothing. Except empty threats to do more: that’s all Obama’s speech contained. It is clear that there is no appetite in western capitals for aggressive action against Russia, even though it would be possible to crush the Russian economy.
Need convincing? German firms are making pilgrimages to Moscow. German politicians are loud in their criticism of sanctions, and bend over backwards to rationalize Putin’s conduct.
Just why did we defend these people for 60 plus years, anyways? They are obsessed with Snowden and the thought that the NSA might be perusing their Amazon purchases. Never mind that a thugocracy is on the march. It’s so much easier for the Germans to criticize the US than Russia. The US doesn’t fight back.
Speaking of NSA, one of the companies that paid homage to Putin in his court was Siemens, a notoriously corrupt firm. Former CIA director James Woolsey said we spy on European companies precisely because of their corruption. Perhaps some kompromat or prosecutions are in order.
Obama appears to be deferring to German wishes. Specifically, I smell Merkel’s influence over the Georgia remarks. Why did Obama have to mention Georgia at all, let alone to throw it very publicly under the bus? Then recall that Merkel has been adamant over excluding Georgia from integration into Nato on any time frame.
Russian troops are massing on Ukraine’s borders. Russia’s most capable formations, its paratroops (VDV) and Guards armored/mechanized units are assembled there. But don’t worry! Russian defense minister Shoygu assures that these troops are only there for maneuvers. And the drunk who is our SecDef believes him:
At the Pentagon, there remains confidence in the assurances provided to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel from Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu that the Russian troops amassing on the border with Ukraine were there only for exercises.
“[Shoygu] told me that they had no intention of crossing the border into Ukraine,” Hagel said at the Pentagon this week.
Can we really be this stupid? (Don’t answer that. The question was totally, totally rhetorical.)
Just why, pray tell, need the Russians conduct maneuvers with 50K of their best troops on a sensitive border? And given that Putin repeatedly lied about his intentions in Crimea, why should we believe Shoygu-especially since there are serious doubts that Shoygu is in Putin’s decision making clique?
In sum, in his various remarks, Obama has revealed that he has many, many cheeks, and is willing to turn them all. To Putin, anyways: not to Romney or other Republicans. Putin will take this as an invitation, and take all that he can. If he isn’t stopped now-and rolled back, actually-he will continue to press. The necessity of confrontation will not be eliminated, just deferred.