President Obama planned to finish his second term “leaning in” to the 21st century. The trouble is, too many contemporary geopolitical players seem determined to reach back into the 19th, if not further. While European and U.S. leaders, in machinations over Ukraine, were contemplating short-term strategies intended to get European capitalism over its latest hiccup, President Vladimir V. Putin was eyeballing the Ukraine crisis through an altogether different lens. Contemplating Crimea’s future within a Western-turning Ukraine, Mr. Putin saw Orthodox identity at risk in the land of the “ancient Khersones, where Prince Vladimir was baptized.”
Thus spoke Mr. Putin in a speech welcoming Crimea back into the Russian Federation, ferociously delivered in the ornate St. George Hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace on March 18. No Oval Office or Rose Garden for Mr. Putin. There will probably be few moments in modern diplomacy more disquieting than his swagger through a trumpet-crossed threshold into this grand hall to announce the annexation of Crimea in blank defiance of the West. Putting aside the imperial drama for a moment, though, his speech demands careful scrutiny, and the many concerns it raises about Western encroachments should be thoughtfully considered. How these had not factored more seriously into Western dabbling in Ukraine is hard to fathom.
Any hope that the Russian Federation would prove a reliable partner with the West in developing a post-nationalist Europe needs to confront its own “reset” now, though it would be a mistake to freeze out Russia for too long from European dialogue. At this historic pivot point, there are no easy ways to push back against Russian imperial visions without creating a dangerous confrontation between NATO and the remnant Warsaw Pact.
The United States and Europe are in no position to force the Russians out of Crimea. What Mr. Obama can do, however, is beef up the sanctions issued so far and remain steadfast in their application. He should also make clear to Mr. Putin that while NATO and the West have no intention of being dragged into a hot conflict with Russia over Ukrainian sovereignty, if Russia and Ukraine come to blows, NATO powers will have little recourse but to assist Ukraine with military restocking. That should clarify that any further Russian expansion will not be as cost-free as the holiday in Crimea. A prolonged struggle with Ukraine will take some of the shine off of Mr. Putin’s imperial glow, and those calling out his name in adulation today could return shouting his name with altogether different intentions in mind.
Many of the claims President Putin made to justify the land grab in Crimea were beyond dubious, but he is not completely wrong about the extremist tendencies of some of the groups promoting Ukraine’s renascent nationalism. President Obama should tread carefully with the new regime in Ukraine until the nature of the players is absolutely clear. The last thing the Obama administration needs is another embarrassing quest for reliable moderates.
Most important, as dire as current conditions appear, Western leaders must hold off from an unhinged rush back to the Cold War. A cynical few are seizing on Putin-induced anxiety and attempting to steer their own agendas through the crisis. The toughness President Obama needs to show now is not just toward Vladimir Putin, who is as likely to be digging his own political grave in Crimea as he is to be laying the foundation of a Russian imperial restoration, but to these various pressure groups at home.
Some are urging the return of Defcon 4 defense budgets (as if the current Pentagon budget were not scandalous enough). Others are demanding that fossil fuel resources generated by the U.S. fracking industry be diverted to Europe, now acutely reliant on natural gas and oil from Russia. That would certainly create profits for a few but would leave U.S. consumers and taxpayers with all the risks engendered by this still controversial extractive industry and none of the purported benefits in domestic energy savings. Others are demanding an end to further efforts toward a nuclear deal and détente with Iran (as if the events in Crimea and progress in Tehran were entwined). Still others call for a vaguely defined global projection of U.S. “toughness.”
American strength and resolve should be directed toward the repair of its own economy, not dissipated on an offspring of the Cold War. The nation needs to learn that it is weakest when it “projects” strength through military muscle alone. The new leaders of the reconstituted Ukraine might follow that lead as well and dedicate themselves to building up a nation that Crimeans may soon wish to rejoin rather than expending their energies arms-racing with the Putinists. In the current crisis, patience, not action, may be best rewarded.