Putin proves a point

Scott wrote last week about the buzzing by Russian warplanes of the Navy destroyer USS Donald Cook in the Baltic Sea. So far, the Obama administration’s response apparently has been limited to complaining.

That’s likely to be the extent of the response. Obama takes pride in forbearance when it comes to U.S. enemies and rivals (though not his own). As Scott put it, he “transcends concerns about national pride as a relic of the past.”

Putin wants to capitalize on Obama’s attitude by publicizing it to leaders and nations who take matters of national pride and humiliation seriously. He is succeeding.

Not being as sophisticated as President Obama, Eastern and Central European leaders and nations certainly take national pride and humiliation seriously. They can be forgiven. Countries like Poland and the Czech Republic have been hung out to dry by “the West” on more than one occasion and with disastrous consequences.

Obama’s feckless response to Putin’s provocations will cause them to wonder whether the U.S. will hang them out to dry this time around. Thus, Putin succeeds in undermining confidence in NATO and increasing the possibility that Eastern and Central European countries will tilt his way.

How should the U.S. respond to incidents like the one last week? Walter Russell Mead says:

The response to Russian provocations does not have to be symmetrical—if they fly too close to our ships, we don’t have to respond directly against the planes, or do the same thing to Russian ships. But the response does have to be painful and obvious to Putin: a high-profile increase in U.S. troops in Lithuania, for example, would do the trick; or a massive “leak” of embarrassing financial information about Kremlin cronies might serve as well.

There’s next to no hope that Obama will respond in this manner. Doing so would be retrograde. But our next president would do well to adopt this advice from Mead:

The only way to deal with someone like Putin is first to establish a sense of boundaries and limits: “don’t do X or something incredibly nasty will happen to you.” Once that’s established, it is perfectly possible to do rational business with Moscow, as long as we check all the fine print.

But failing to keep Russia’s respect will make it harder, not easier, to reach pragmatic deals where our interests coincide. The White House at this point doesn’t so much need a reset button with Russia as it needs to hit control/alt/delete to reboot the relationship.

Unfortunately, the next president may well be the same fool who tried to hit the reset button in the first place.

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