Many astute analysts say that Vladimir Putin’s aggressive actions against Ukraine are a product of Russian weakness rather than of Russian strength. The Russian economy is weak, lacking in innovation, dependent on petroleum exports. Putin understands, unless he stokes nationalist sentiment that enlarges his popularity, he will be vulnerable to criticism and dissident movements at home. He has watched as the West has extended its alliances to former Soviet republics right on his borders.
Even if Putin is acting from weakness, he is proceeding with strength. He understands several things. He knows Ukraine is weak. Europe depends on Russian oil and gas. The West has already ruled out military intervention to defend Ukraine — though he could easily have divined without an admission from President Barack Obama that the West would not go to war with Russia over Ukraine. In other words, the West, too, has its weaknesses, though economically and militarily, it is far stronger than Russia.
Critics such as Sen. John McCain have accused Obama of talking loudly and carrying a small stick. Indeed, Obama is suffering the consequences of his own realism. He was not about to intervene in Syria on behalf of unreliable extremist rebels, nor did the American people want him to. It was a stroke of welcome restraint that he resisted the impulse to strike out in a futile gesture. And yet the threatening rhetoric he directed at Syrian President Bashar Assad created the expectation that he would do something. Now people wonder whether his “red lines” have any meaning.
It is a time of complex interlocking foreign challenges. For the West, the challenge in Ukraine is to respond to Russian provocations in a way that persuades Putin, if he pursues his aggression, he will lose rather than gain. That doesn’t mean threaten him militarily. It means threaten him in other substantive ways. The aim is stability among nations of Europe, which is good for prosperity and progress, as opposed to the fear and instability that follow when neighbors threaten neighbors.
Putin has already demonstrated he is willing to create confusion to push the United States back on its heels. His military support for Assad’s regime in Syria has revealed a chink in the armor of the United States — a chink that exists because we are not willing to behave with ruthlessness to match his.
Ultimately, however, the United States and its allies will have to stand their ground. Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are our allies. Before Putin tries to make mischief for them, it would be useful for the United States to show him that even his adventures in Ukraine will cost him. Obama will need the backing of the European nations who now depend on Russia oil and gas, but launching sanctions that begin a shift away from that dependency would hit Putin where it hurts.
The present moment, with the United States engaged in talks with Iran, as well as with Palestinians and Israelis, has much promise. The Israeli-Palestinian talks have foundered lately, but changes in Iran are real and a rapprochement between Iran and the United States could have major positive effects throughout the Middle East. George Soros, the billionaire financier, recently speculated that Iran could become America’s No. 1 ally in the region.
Putin, trying to re-establish a strong international role for Russia, has the power to create trouble threatening all of these initiatives. As David Ignatius at The Washington Post has pointed out, he is doing it, not by overtly military means, but through subversion, provocation and other KGB-style tactics — tactics the U.S. perfected in helping to weaken the old Soviet empire.
In the end, Putin might be dissuaded from invading Ukraine because, as the U.S. learned in Iraq, invasion and occupation of a country creates enormous headaches, responsibilities and unsolvable problems. Invasion of Ukraine could be for him what Iraq was for George W. Bush or Afghanistan was for Leonid Brezhnev. Of course, we can’t expect him to know that.
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