In occupying Crimea, Vladimir Putin has brought the Russian bear, snarling and clawing, out of its post-Cold War hibernation. An anxious world awaits America's response.
President Obama's challenge is three-fold. The first and most urgent task is to discourage Putin from authorizing deeper incursions into Ukrainian territory on the pretext of protecting their Russian-speaking compatriots from "fascists." That could be the thread that unravels Ukraine's independence.
Sending Secretary of State John Kerry to Kiev this week is a welcome gesture of U.S. solidarity, but in truth there is little Washington can do to stop Putin from grabbing a larger chunk of the country. No one is prepared to go to war over Ukraine, and the Russian strongman knows it. Nonetheless, Obama should spell out an escalating chain of penalties Russia will incur for further aggression.
Second, Washington must orchestrate a global chorus of condemnation of Russia's blatant violation of Ukraine's sovereignty, reinforced by sustained diplomatic and economic pressure on Putin to withdraw his troops. The third task is to solicit economic aid to help stabilize Ukraine's fragile new government and lessen its dependence on Russia.
Pundits are calling the crisis the gravest test to date of Obama's international leadership. Perhaps, but there's a larger question: Can the divided U.S. government, which can scarcely pass a budget or fill key posts, muster a coherent and forceful reply to Putin's attempts to bully Russia's neighbors into submission?
This shouldn't be a partisan issue, but some Republicans just can't help themselves. Russia's aggression, they charge, is the bitter fruit of Obama's weakness. Never mind that Putin also invaded neighboring Georgia in 2008 on George W. Bush's watch.
Evidently, the "blame America first" mentality that Republicans used to attribute to Democrats has migrated from the left to the right of the political spectrum.
Occupying Crimea is part of Putin's grand strategy to restore a strong Russia that's once again respected -- i.e., feared -- and halts the advance of Western-style democracy into what Moscow regards as its historic sphere of influence. This complicates Putin's plan to organize a "Eurasian Union" of compliant autocracies as a counterweight to the European Union.
The Russian leader and former KGB operative has called the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union a tragedy. But that doesn't mean he has grandiose visions of recreating Stalin's old empire. Instead, the wily Putin is trying to revise, not reverse, the Cold War settlement. That's why he's focusing on countries on Russia's borders with large ethnic or Russian-speaking populations. Putin would like to reabsorb as many of them as possible, which is why he doesn't want these countries to follow the Baltics and Eastern Europe in turning to the West. In championing supposedly endangered Russian minorities, and reestablishing the Russian Orthodox Church as the state religion, Putin is trying to revive the old Russian nationalism of the Tsars.
Unfortunately, he also seems bent on resurrecting the worst features of that tradition -- creeping imperial expansion, stifling autocracy, paranoia about being "encircled" by enemies and resentful envy of the modern West, led nowadays by America.
This backsliding from the hopeful days of post-Soviet Russia, when Boris Yeltsin tried to put his country on a "normal" course toward market democracy, is a tragedy for Russians, not just their fearful neighbors. Fabricating conflicts with newly independent neighbors and whipping up anti-Americanism strikes a revanchist chord, especially among older Russians. Moreover, such antics distract the world's eye from popular protests in Russia, as well as harsh crackdowns on dissent and civil society, and the ruthless stamping out of real political competition.
President Obama hasn't paid nearly enough attention to the rising authoritarian tide in Russia. Instead, in classic "realpolitik" fashion, the White House keeps emphasizing the need to win Russia's cooperation on what it regards as more important issues, like reaching a political resolution of Syria's civil war (though Moscow has no interest in Assad's departure) and striking a nuclear deal with Iran.
More fundamentally, Obama appears to have internalized the critique -- which now joins the anti-war left to the libertarian right -- that America's problems abroad stem mainly from our own moralizing and overreaching, not what bad actors elsewhere do. That's why he has demoted freedom and democracy as U.S. foreign policy goals, and stood aloof from the Syrian bloodbath, even as the human and strategic costs of inaction keep mounting.
Let's hope the Ukraine crisis jolts the president out of his solipsistic complacency. Russia's resort to brute force to intimidate its neighbors is a threat to the international system shaped and sustained mainly by American power over the last half-century. Are we really too war-weary, overstretched or poor to rise to this new challenge? Not unless our leaders think we are.