Barack Obama is the second U.S. president in a row to badly misjudge Vladimir Putin. In 2001, after his first meeting with Putin, George W. Bush famously told Colin Powell, his secretary of state, that he thought the Russian leader was religious. “Powell, I looked into Putin’s eyes and I saw his soul.” To which Powell replied: “Mr. President, I looked into President Putin’s eyes and I saw the KGB.”
Barack Obama hasn’t made that mistake. But in the wake of Russia’s invasion of the Ukranian region of Crimea, it’s worth remembering that in 2008, Obama ridiculed John McCain for warning about Russia after its invasion of independent Georgia. In 2012, he mocked Romney for identifying Russia as our top geopolitical foe, sneering, “The Cold War has been over for 20 years.”
But Vladimir Putin has long acted as if he can’t wait to bring the icicles of the Cold War back. At their joint public meetings, Putin has dismissively looked away from Obama, treating him as someone he could dupe or roll over at will. Critics say that attitude was on display in Putin’s handling of Edward Snowden and in his moves regarding Syria. In both cases, he embarrassed the United States.
Senator John McCain says it is now obvious that not only Obama but also Hillary Clinton got Russia wildly wrong. Of Clinton, he says, “She believed there would somehow be a ‘reset’ with a guy who was a KGB colonel who always had ambitions to restore the Russian empire,” McCain told the Daily Beast. McCain noted that as late as last Thursday, Secretary of State Kerry and other U.S. officials accepted assurances from Russia’s foreign minister that Russia had no intention of violating Ukraine’s sovereignty. The occupation of Crimea began the following day.
Unless the West shows egregious weakness in the face of the Russian aggression, Putin is unlikely to grab more of Ukraine. With Crimea under his control, he can build a new pipeline to Western Europe, which gets one-third of its natural gas from Russia. With this pipeline in place, which will be routed around Ukraine, Putin will hold Ukraine in a stranglehold: He can credibly threaten to turn off the current pipeline, which runs through and also supplies Ukraine, without endangering sales to Western Europe. He’s done this before. In both 2006 and 2009, Russia’s state-controlled Gazprom corporation shut off deliveries to Ukraine, supposedly over pricing disputes.
Many analysts believe that Putin took the measure of Obama in 2009. The Russians bitterly criticized an agreement the Bush administration had signed with Poland and the Czech Republic to install missile interceptors and a radar tracking system; these were intended to protect Europe from Iran and to give Eastern Europeans confidence that the U.S. was determined to contain the Russian Bear. Obama abruptly canceled the agreement, giving the host countries scant advance warning. They bit their tongues in public, but many Poles and Czechs felt betrayed. Mirek Topolánek, who was Czech prime minister at the time his country signed the agreement with the Bush administration, bluntly told reporters that the U.S. withdrawal “is not good news for the Czech state, for Czech freedom and independence.”
So what must the U.S. and the West do now to deter further Russian aggression in Ukraine? Clearly they have an obligation to take some action. In 1994, the U.S., Great Britain, and Russia guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial inviolability in exchange for the new state’s agreement to destroy the nuclear weapons it had inherited from the Soviet Union after its breakup.
Russian propaganda about depraved Europe conceals an intimate relationship. Tourism in the European Union is a safety valve for a large Russian middle class that takes its cues in fashion and pretty much everything else from European culture. Much of the Russian elite has sent its children to private schools in the European Union or Switzerland. Beyond that, since no Russian of any serious means trusts the Russian financial system, wealthy Russians park their wealth in European banks. In other words, the Russian social order depends upon the Europe that Russian propaganda mocks. And beneath hypocrisy, as usual, lies vulnerability.
The U.S. should immediately move to expand its existing Magnitsky Act, which prohibits Russians engaged in illegal activity from entering the U.S. If it were extended to the regulation of bank accounts and property ownership in the U.S., we’d hear howls of outrage from many Russian officials and oligarchs. Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), for one, supports this kind of restriction: “Living in Miami, I have seen in recent years the wave of Russian tourists coming to our city and state to spend money and buy property. Many are government officials or allies whose wealth stems from allegiance to Putin, and we should limit their ability to travel here.”
Kerry will travel to Kiev on Tuesday for a firsthand look at the crisis. On Sunday, as the New York Times reported, he warned that if Russia doesn’t curb its territorial appetites, Putin “is not going to have a Sochi G-8,” a reference to the meeting of the top world economies that Putin is slated to host in June this year. “He may not even remain in the G-8 if this continues,” Kerry continued. After all, Russia’s weak and underdeveloped economy was admitted to the G-8 only in 1998 as a gesture of friendship after Russia’s devastating currency collapse.
It’s time to put signs of friendship on hold, and if Russian troops advance deeper into Ukraine, it might also be time to reassess Russia’s membership in the World Trade Organization.
The old adage says, “Fool me once, shame on you – fool me twice, shame on me.” The earlier version of the saying, attributed to the most famous clown of the Elizabethan era, Richard Tarlton, offers further wisdom:
For who deceives me once, God forgive him; if twice, God forgive him; but if thrice, God forgive him, but not me, because I could not beware.
The U.S. is now on its third Putin-inspired pratfall, and the routine is getting stale. The lesson is now clear: Beware the Russian Bear. As Indiana governor Mike Pence, a former member of the House leadership, told me this weekend: “History shows the Russian Bear’s ambitions never die, they just go into hibernation.”
— John Fund is a national-affairs columnist for National Review Online.