President Barack Obama’s cautious approach to the crisis in Ukraine may grow, in part, from his belief that Vladimir Putin is not stupid enough actually to invade Ukraine.
It is a variation of the rope-a-dope strategy that Obama has sometimes employed in politics. Rope-a-dope was the practice used by boxing champion Muhammad Ali, who would entice his opponent into exhausting himself by punching futilely at Ali, who had adopted a defensive posture, covering up and bouncing off the ropes. Ali was on the ropes; his opponent was making a dope of himself.
Putin, the Russian president, is full of braggadocio and lies these days, issuing threatening statements designed to intimidate the people of Ukraine. It could be prelude to an outright invasion of eastern Ukraine. Putin has said he doesn’t want to be forced to exercise his right to intervene on behalf of the Russian-speaking minority in eastern Ukraine, a warning like that of the husband who tells his wife: “Don’t make me hit you.” He is articulating a pretense of restraint that is meant as an act of aggression designed to create fear.
And yet as a story in The New York Times described it, Russia would be foolhardy actually to follow through on its threats. Putin’s popularity in the polls is stratospheric for the moment because he has touched on the great patriotic nerve of the Russian people, who still feel the humiliation of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. At the same time the Russian economy is sliding downhill. Oil revenue is stagnant, the value of the ruble is falling, inflation is growing, and recession is looming. Rich Russians are sending their money overseas, and the dependence of the Russian economy on the oil sector has made the nation vulnerable, rather than resilient.
The annexation of Crimea has played well to feelings of Russian nationalism, but Crimea may well be an additional drain on the Russian economy. Eastern Ukraine is an industrial area that Russia depends on, but it is not Germany. Ukraine is a mess, and if Russia claims it, it will be Russia’s mess. Further, many Ukrainians have historical memories of the many crimes perpetrated by the Russians and the Soviets against the Ukrainian people, and Russian dominance of any part of Ukraine will come at a cost.
A Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine, on one sort of drummed-up pretense or another, ought to persuade the European nations that depend on Russian oil and gas to look elsewhere for their energy sources. How about Iran? How about the United States? Iran is moving toward more friendly relations with the West and would no doubt be pleased to find a market for its newly marketable fuels. The United States, meanwhile, will soon be the world’s largest producer of oil.
Putin is not going to be shamed into doing the right thing or persuaded by reason. He will restrain himself once he is convinced that taking more aggressive action in Ukraine would be stupid — for him and for his nation. Instead of rekindling Russian glory, it would mire Russia in a low-grade war and force it to take on economic burdens that would only add to its troubles.
Through rope-a-dope, Obama allows Putin to spew his nationalist rhetoric and to adopt an aggressive posture until he works himself into a state of frustration and fatigue that causes him finally to back off. For Obama, there is risk in adopting a cautious posture because critics tend to leap on him if he doesn’t exercise maximum aggressiveness. But like Ali, Obama has always had the kind of cunning that has fooled opponents and allowed him to win when it looked like he was losing.
Or to use an analogy from judo, the sport of which Putin is a practitioner, Obama may in the end allow Putin’s own momentum to cause him to fall flat on his face.
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