Russian President Vladimir Putin has humiliated President Barack Obama. He advanced soldiers into the Crimea–into the sovereign territory of Ukraine–without uniforms, in apparent violation of the laws of war. He knew that Obama would not dare complain–that the White House would, in fact, seize upon the ambiguity of the invasion as a way to pretend it had not yet happened. And then, of course, it did, after the Duma rubber-stamped Putin’s plans, after the world took the measure of Obama’s hand-wringing non-response to the crisis.
It is hard to recall a more complete setback for American power. Jimmy Carter’s response to the Soviet invasion Afghanistan was more convincing–and in that case the USSR was at least shoring up a socialist regime. The Ukraine is a free, albeit troubled, government, one of the most important post-Soviet states, struggling to chart an independent path–and the U.S. has done almost nothing to defend it. President Obama declared: “We will stand with the international community.” Not the Ukraine itself. The Ukraine must stand–or fall–alone.
The White House released a photograph of the president in the midst of a 90-minute telephone call with Putin. Evidently, the Obama administration was pleased with the image. The president looks serious, engaged. But note his dress, and his posture. He is wearing casual summer clothes. He is standing next to the desk in the Oval Office–not behind it, not taking notes, not even speaking. There are no advisers. There are no papers. There are no maps. It is a portrait of a president who is obsessed with his image, but detached from his duties.
The president’s advisers and supporters like to pretend that the only alternative to his policies is war. Yet while war is one option–it should always be an option–there are many other responses available to Obama. But there are fewer options than there were before men in military fatigues seized the Crimean airports. And when Russian troops assume their positions, there will be fewer still. The president urges “dialogue” between the two governments, as if there has been some misunderstanding–as if Obama is begging someone else to lead.
In 2011, President Obama famously promised Putin (through then-President Dmitri Medvedev) that he would have more “flexibility” after his re-election campaign to offer concessions on missile defense. There was little the president was not willing to sacrifice in pursuit of his “reset” with Russia, motivated by the misguided idea that the tension in U.S.-Russian relations had been due to the overly assertive posture of George W. Bush. Putin interpreted Obama’s gesture broadly–and correctly–as a sign of weakness and eagerness to appease.
It was the supposedly stupid Sarah Palin who warned in 2008 that Obama’s wishy-washy response to the Russian invasion of Georgia would portend future invasions of other frontline states, specifically the Ukraine. She routed Joe Biden in their Vice Presidential debate, where the Democrats’ supposed expert on foreign policy proved utterly ignorant. Yet the media pronounced Biden the winner, en route to ushering in Obama’s victory. Until Russia announced its intention to invade Ukraine, they predicted it would not. They share the blame.