Putin, a 19th Century Bully

By Paul Roderick Gregory

The U.S. response to Vladimir Putin's illegal annexation of Crimea and his amassing of troops on the border with Eastern Ukraine has been tepid, at best. Although the Obama-Kerry sanctions of Putin's inner circle bit a little more deeply than Europe's, Putin can shrug sanctions off as a minor inconvenience. Even though the invasion and Anschluss of Crimea violates the 1994 Budapest Agreement signed by Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom that assured Ukraine's territorial integrity, Kerry did not put it on the list of grievances in his discussions with the Russian foreign minister. The Ukrainian government was outraged at the state department's seeming acceptance of Russia's Crimean annexation as a fait accompli. After all, Ukraine surrendered its nuclear arsenal in return for territorial guarantees, and, when the going got tough, the U.S. did not meet its own treaty obligations.

Pundits explain the apparent U.S. indifference to Russia's destabilization and threatened dismemberment of Ukraine in terms of war fatigue and geography. Americans are simply worn out from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and Ukraine is far away on the eastern fringe of Europe. Russia supplies Europe with natural gas. We have more than enough for ourselves. It is Europe's vital interests that are being threatened, not our own. They should take care of this matter, not us.

This reasoning explains President Obama's embarrassing refusal to supply military equipment to the outmatched and beleaguered Ukrainian army, and there are exclusive reports (Daily Beast) that U.S. intelligence won't even share its intelligence with Ukraine on Russian military preparations for invasion. The Ukrainians must wonder whose side we are on.

Annexing Crimea, the West has decided, has not threatened vital interests. Russia annexing half, or all, of Ukraine is a different matter. Will such a threat stir Europe and the United States to action? That, to quote Shakespeare, is the question.

I believe that we stand at a major turning point in history that will affect America and Europe for decades to come. We fail to grasp the long-term implications of allowing an unrestrained Putin to annex by force territories of sovereign nations or sovereign nations themselves. In our lack of attention, we do not understand that we stand on the threshold of choosing between two visions of the world. Both visions are bleak, but the second one spells long-run trouble and immense costs, which we must understand right now.

In the first scenario, Russia remains, using Barack Obama's term, a "regional power." With its nuclear arsenal, energy production, and Security Council veto, it can continue to play a spoiler role throughout the world as the United States' "number one geopolitical enemy," to use Mitt Romney's words. Russia will be our nemesis in Iran, Iraq, Venezuela, Cuba, and other trouble spots it can stir up. It will veto our resolutions in the Security Council. It will nibble away at its peripheries. It will do its best to assist our enemies. The naïve hope of the "reset"-that Russia will help us out in trouble spots as a partner-has hopefully been buried in the graveyard of bad ideas.

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Paul Gregory is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. He holds an endowed professorship in the Department of Economics at the University of Houston, Texas, is a research professor at the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin, and is chair of the International Advisory Board of the Kiev School of Economics.

Originally published by the Hoover Institution.

(AP Photo)

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