Putin holds the hammer (and sickle?)

Apparently, the very serious measures President Obama has announced haven’t fazed Russian President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. From The Wall Street Journal:

Russia Moves Closer to Absorbing Crimea, Despite Sanctions
Putin Orders Approval of Draft Agreement on Annexation of Crimea

By Carol E. Lee and Jay Solomon in Washington, and Gregory L. White in Moscow | Updated March 18, 2014 7:24 a.m. ET

Russian President Vladimir Putin brushed off an initial round of Western sanctions over the Ukraine crisis and defied warnings of stiffer punishment to come by taking another step toward annexing Crimea.

The Obama administration Monday enacted what it called the most comprehensive sanctions to hit Russia since the end of the Cold War. It targeted 11 Russian and Ukrainian officials, including some of Mr. Putin’s top advisers and the ousted former president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, a close Kremlin ally.

The European Union followed by blacklisting 21 individuals. Unlike the U.S. it steered clear of Mr. Putin’s inner circle, wary of ratcheting up the East-West confrontation. Business ties run deeper between Russia and Europe, although the landscape gets murkier as tensions climb.

The officials blacklisted by Washington and Brussels laughed off the initial wave of sanctions, with many saying they have no overseas assets that could be targeted. Russian financial markets, which have been hit hard during the crisis, also jumped in what traders said reflected relief that the penalties weren’t more sweeping.

More at the link.

The sanctions are an annoyance, no doubt about that, but just an annoyance. They don’t have the power to undo Russia’s actions, or the bite to unseat President Putin, and everybody knows it. Thus far, Russia’s actions have been (mostly) limited to the Crimea, but if President Putin decides that his troops have to move into eastern Ukraine, ostensibly to protect the rights of the ethnic Russians and Russophones living there, he already knows that the West cannot and will not stop him.

In 1990, President Saddam Hussein ordered Iraqi forces to invade neighboring Kuwait, which quickly fell and was annexed by Iraq. At the time, the United States had a real President, and the elder George Bush told President Hussein that he had to leave Kuwait, period, or he would be forced out. President Hussein didn’t believe him, and President Bush took action; after several months of fruitless negotiations, and an American-led Coalition military buildup, Mr Bush ordered the assault which drove Iraqi forces back out of Kuwait.1

But President Bush did what was possible; it is not (realistically) possible to tell President Putin that if he doesn’t evacuate the Crimea, or if he assails eastern Ukraine, that we will use military force to expel him. We will not go to war over eastern Ukraine — or all of Ukraine, for that matter — and everybody knows it. All that remains are non-military measures, and the huge entanglement of our European allies with Russia, primarily Russia’s supplies of natural gas and petroleum, means that democratic Europe can’t tolerate much in the way of economic or financial sanctions. With the coming of Spring, Europe will need less natural gas from Russia, but is in no position to get no gas from Russia. Everybody knows that, too. Ideas that we could replace the supplies that Europe receives from Russia depend entirely on the Obama Administration being willing to allow greater oil and gas production and transportation, but the President and his Administration seem more concerned about climate change warnings than foreign policy, so we might as well take that idea off the table.2

And here is where President Obama’s past foreign policy weaknesses have hurt his credibility: the famous red line that he drew, and that Syrian President Bashar al Assad stepped right across, showed the world just how seriously anyone needs to take the threats of President Obama. In what now seems like an obvious ploy, President Putin even helped the United States, by brokering a deal in which Syria would give up its chemical weapons,3 but it exposed Mr Obama’s weakness vis a vis Mr Putin. A former KGB officer, Vladimir Putin isn’t the kind to miss things like that. He took the measure of Barack Hussein Obama in Syria, and saw exactly what kind of an opponent he faced.

President Theodore Roosevelt is credited with the expression “speak softly, but carry a big stick.” Reasonable people already knew that we could not and would not use that big stick against Russia, with her huge armies and nuclear weapons, but President Putin quickly determined that President Obama was very reluctant to carry that big stick even against Syria4 and Iran, and Mr Obama’s obvious distaste for the Israelis being willing to defend themselves vigorously only reinforced that view.

Bashar al Assad and Ali Hosseini Khamenei both showed that countries which could not resist the United States militarily if it came down to that could still flout Barack Obama’s demands, and that he would back down; a lot of not very nice men saw those examples and learned from them, and Vladimir Putin, who rules a country that the United States could not defeat militarily, certainly learned that lesson . . . because he helped to craft it!

Flags flown by demonstrators in the Crimea; note the old one in the center.

And so it has come to this: President Putin will do exactly what he wants to do, because he knows that he can do it. President Obama can bluster and fuss, which he will, but the former KGB officer knows that there’s just no threat like an empty one.

President Obama should be glad that there are no real reporters in the Kremlin, who could capture Mr Putin, on tape, laughing at him, because we all know that that’s exactly what he is doing.

  1. Regrettably, when we had Saddam Hussein on the ropes, the elder President Bush yielded to poor advice that President Hussein would be deposed by the Iraqi people, and stopped Coalition military action 100 hours into the ground assault. President Hussein survived, and this left it to the younger President Bush to finish the job.
  2. Even if the President reversed his policies, to allow such changes, the infrastructure to export large amounts of natural gas to Europe does not exist; port facilities would have to be modified and more liquified natural gas ships built.
  3. Which has begun, but which is also behind schedule.
  4. Sending out your Secretary of State to say that Bashar al Assad must go, twice, six months apart, and then forging agreements with him that do not require him to go does not exactly inspire confidence that your threats should be taken seriously.

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