So Vladimir Putin invades Ukraine and denies doing it. Those guys just showed up in matching uniforms. To be fair, Putin did reserve the right to invade. And the deposed Ukrainian president, who barely escaped with his life, and who even Putin acknowledges is a crook, did invite Russia to go in. Putin is also upset that Ukraine’s new government did not observe the procedural due process for which the Russian government is so well known. He is outraged over phantom attacks on Russians, and now sits back to consider how big a piece of Ukraine he wants to break off, while the U.S. and Europeans, just hoping Putin will settle for Crimea, plead for dialogue and scramble to provide Putin with an off ramp that he doesn’t think he needs.
John Kerry is shocked that Putin is not behaving the way an autocrat in the 21st century should behave, while most Americans are shocked that their secretary of state is living on another planet. Obama is of the opinion that Russia is in violation of international law, but hastens to acknowledge that Putin has a different set of lawyers than he does. You know how confusing things can get when these dictators lawyer up. Most folks thought that the rules about taking chunks of other people’s countries, when they didn’t pose a threat, have been pretty clear since the 1600s. But I’ve gotta admit, most invaders since then have not been invited in by a disgraced former president as he sat in the aggressor’s country sipping their vodka. You can see why Putin’s lawyers would think that the Russians got permission.
One might also appreciate why our president might be a little tentative. Perhaps he is a bit sensitive about calling out another leader for lying to the people and ignoring the rule of law. Who knows?
Perhaps his reluctance is due to the fact that after his whispered message to Putin about flexibility after the election, Hillary’s reset button, our being bullied out of a missile-defense system in Eastern Europe, our being hoodwinked into accepting Russian “cooperation” in Syria, and Russia’s harboring of Edward Snowden, the administration hadn’t been humiliated by the Russians for several weeks and Obama didn’t want to mess up the opportunity for better relations. Really, all Putin seems to want is Crimea. Surely that will be the end of his aggressiveness. He wouldn’t dare risk the dreaded “isolation by the international community.”
Complicating things further for Obama is the fact that some of his intellectual soul-mates are “putting things in perspective” with arguments like these: They aren’t defending Putin, they say, but they do note that Ukraine once was part of Russia. Of course, before Ukraine was part of Russia, it used to be part of Poland. Perhaps the Poles should get their claim in. Also, these soul-mates note, Crimea is populated mostly by ethnic Russians. Never mind that this is in large part the result of Stalin putting the Crimean Tatars in boxcars and exporting them. Obama’s friends add that we can’t forget that the U.S. used to have the Monroe Doctrine. And, of course, we have the ever-popular “Iraq analogy.” I suppose that’s why Iraq is now an American province, right? And, we’re reminded, NATO is moving too close to Russia and that makes Putin nervous. After all, nobody likes it when that officious friend, liberty, comes around, showing off and setting a bad example for the kids, etc., etc.
I propose a way out of this confusion . . . a constructive solution that helps our president out of this complicated web of international law and troubling historical analogies. I suggest that Obama go with something a little more straightforward. A conversation like this:
Vladimir, we had this thing some of us call the Cold War. It cost the West a lot of lives, time, money, and aggravation. We won. You lost. You consider your loss to be a catastrophe to be rectified. We consider it to be a blessing to be preserved at all cost. That’s a pretty wide gulf. We’re not likely to bridge it. So let’s cut to the proverbial chase.
Vlad, you and your buddies are not only losers, you are bad guys. Not to put too fine a point on it, but you jail and kill people who want nothing more than the rights they are entitled to as human beings. You want to increase your power to do so. We protect such people and resist your ambitions. That makes us the good guys. When the bad guys get out of hand, the good guys shouldn’t worry too much about the details of the Treaty of Westphalia. We just have to make sure that you stay losers.
So with regard to the current unpleasantness, if you relent, you can continue doing your thing within the confines of Russia until the people get tired of you or you run out of oil and natural gas. But you are not going to expand your reach. If you don’t relent we’re going to make your life miserable and make you look as bad to your people as you have made me look to mine. Think NATO expansion, a Europe no longer dependent on you as an energy source because they can rely on the U.S. Think about the stashes and travel of your oligarchs. They will. And that missile-defense system we abandoned in the Czech Republic and Poland? Deployment will start in about a month. Bottom line? We’ve noticed you like to lose your shirt. This time, we’re gonna help with that.
We actually have little to lose. We’re getting out of Afghanistan and things couldn’t be any worse in Syria. Your aggressiveness has provided us with an opportunity to rectify some mistakes. Even I know now that we’ll have to deal with you sooner or later.
Now you can hope that we will not be able to persuade our European allies to help with this course of action, since it sometimes looks like we have to beg them to throw a bucket of water on a burning couch in their own living room. They do value their trade, oligarch money, and energy sources. And you might be tempted to count on that. But I’ll be having a conversation with them about what the point of NATO is if it can’t get it together on this. Perhaps they are prepared to forsake the alliance and spend more than a fraction of 1 percent of their own GDP on their defense. Good luck with counting on that.
Of course, Obama will never have a conversation like that with Putin. And it’s not because he fears that Russia has the upper hand, or because he is unsure of the facts on the ground or international law. It’s not even because he doesn’t understand that there will be more serious consequences to pay if we continue our display of ineptitude and weakness that so clearly invites aggression. No, I think it’s something else.
Like the average teenager, immature adults, and too many politicians, Obama values short-term considerations over long-term consequences. His “long term” is about three years from now. Everything he does has to do with his legacy in the eyes of those throughout the world whose approval he craves. This involves a certain amount of deference to the moral-equivalence argument when confrontations such as this one over Ukraine present themselves. You know the one: “America is exceptional, but everybody thinks their own country is exceptional. And who are we to tell them what to do?” This also deprives him of the use of his considerable rhetorical skills, except to draw meaningless red lines for the purpose of kicking a crisis down the road, and rhetoric is important.
While my suggested message to Putin is not necessarily to be taken literally in every aspect, I doubt whether Ronald Reagan really expected Gorbachev to tear down that wall, either. But he inspired others to do it and gave new hope to all who seek freedom. That’s part of the job of a president of the United States. At least it used to be.
— Fred Thompson is a former U.S. senator from Tennessee.