Alot of talk from Washington and Western European capitals about the Ukrainian crisis complained that Russia’s Vladimir Putin is some kind of throwback to the 20th or 19th century, as if he could be shamed into conforming to new 21st century norms of international conduct.
The American left has been particularly enthralled with a new age, one world mythology since the election of President Barack Obama. Most of the globe’s problems, in this view, stemmed from the disruptive, embarrassing cowboy antics of George W. Bush. To the liberal mindset, Bush did make the United States something of a great Satan.
Putin’s invasion of Crimea and the sham vote there to be annexed to Russia constituted the nail in the coffin in that wishful thinking. Gone is the notorious “reset” with Moscow, back is the Cold War-like reality of East-West confrontation.
Critics of Obama charge the weakness he projects on the world stage made possible Putin’s bad behavior. More out-of-touch thinking: If only we had a stronger president, all would be well in Ukraine today.
What the Ukrainian crisis proves is that nothing has changed in human nature or the affairs of nations in the 21st century. Evil-minded individuals ruling great nations will still abuse neighboring states, even to the brink of war. Strategic interests, expansionist dreams, national pride, the pull of clan, and suspicion and fear of the other will always influence world events. There will be a Putin in the next century, and a Crimea-like crisis in the one after that.
Putin saw recent events in Kiev as the Ukraine drifting into the orbit of Western democracies. Given the historic and cultural ties between Ukraine and Russia, that was simply unacceptable to him and his vision of reversing what he sees as the calamity of the collapse of the Soviet Union by creating a greater Russia.
The overthrow of the democratically elected, and pro-Russian, president in Kiev, combined with the 1999 precedent of America enabling Kosovo to break away from Serbia provided Putin a fig-leaf pretext to seize Crimea, where ethnic Russians are a majority and which was in fact a part of Russia until 1964.
While Obama’s record of weakness didn’t lead to the Ukrainian crisis, it must be reversed to discourage any Putin ambitions beyond Crimea. No more drawing red lines Obama has no intention of enforcing. No more declarations like the one two years ago that Syrian dictator Bashir al-Assad “must go.” No more breast-beating like saying the murderers of the U.S. ambassador in Libya will be brought to justice when the White House has no actual agenda to do it. No more leading from behind.
Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as de facto head of the European Union, have imposed sanctions on members of Putin’s inner circle and have more in their pocket if Putin carries out his threat to annex Crimea or do more in the vein of Sunday’s seizure of a gas facility in eastern Ukraine.
The recognition of the old realities of the world will require serious policy decisions and reconsiderations in Washington and Europe. Obama’s choice, a sop to Russia, to abandon a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic obviously was a bad one. So was his decision, announced only weeks ago, to cut U.S. defense spending. So, too, is a French project, reported by National Review, to build two helicopter-carrying ships for Russia. Also out of date is the habit of our NATO allies to freeload on U.S. defense spending.
The only good thing to be said for Putin is that he has shocked the West out of its new age daydream.