The New Yorker’s David Remnick writes:
Vladimir Putin, the Russian President and autocrat, had a plan for the winter of 2014: to reassert his country’s power a generation after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He thought that he would achieve this by building an Olympic wonderland on the Black Sea for fifty-one billion dollars and putting on a dazzling television show. It turns out that he will finish the season in a more ruthless fashion, by invading a peninsula on the Black Sea and putting on quite a different show—a demonstration war that could splinter a sovereign country and turn very bloody, very quickly.
The Sochi and Crimea shows are different in form but similar in substance. Both are assertions of Russian status. Think of the 1936 Berlin Olympics and the 1938 Anschluss.
Remnick, one of Obama’s leading apologists, attributes Putin’s aggressive behavior toward Ukraine in part to confidence that the U.S. won’t oppose his ambitions because it needs his help with Syria and Iran. More likely, Putin’s confidence rests on the fact that he has taken the measure of President Obama.
He did so as early as 2009 during Obama’s visit to Russia. As I wrote at the time:
What really has turned Russian heads, according to my sources, is Obama’s eagerness to give things away. The Russians, you see, are hard-nosed. They drive hard bargains in their dealings with themselves and perhaps harder still with outsiders. They may even take what they can’t get through hard bargaining when you’re not looking.
Throughout the Cold War, except to some extent during the Carter years, the U.S. responded more or less in kind to Russian hard-bargaining. In the modern era, President Bush, prodded by Vice President Cheney, eventually did so as well.
It probably never occurred to the Russians that a U.S. president would come to power hoping to “reset” relations with Russia on some basis other than the hard bargain and the “trust but verify” mentality. Yet this is precisely what has fallen into the Kremlin’s lap. From what I’ve heard, the Russian elites can neither believe their good fortune nor hide their amusement.
What’s Russian for “I told you so”?
Remnick suggests that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine may be “fatal” to his regime. He cites Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan which eventually backfired on the Soviet regime.
This may be a comforting thought for those prepared to support Obama’s complacent approach to the world. But Afghanistan backfired because the Russians became bogged down there in the face of resistance funded in part by the U.S. Russia will face little or no resistance in Crimea or in Eastern Ukraine, which may be its next target. And any resistance it may face will not be sponsored by the Obama administration. Our president, no doubt, would limit his involvement to deploring the violence.
The better analogy is to Putin’s move against Georgia in 2008. It resulted in the Russians taking control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Putin has gone from strength to strength since.
Many of us have called for sanctions against Russia and its oligarchs. The point of such sanctions isn’t to reverse Russia’s Ukraine policy; Russia will handle Ukraine as it sees fit.
The point is to reset our relations with Russia so that they align with reality. Putin is the successor of those we opposed, and ultimately defeated, in the Cold War. Our policy towards his Russia should be set accordingly.
This, by the way, is the real answer to those who say we can’t risk alienating Putin because we need his help with Syria and Iran. That’s like saying we can’t risk alienating Brezhnev because we need his help with Cuba and Vietnam.
Even Jimmy Carter wouldn’t have said that.