Resetting the Reset

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

Michael Rubin is author of the new book Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes. Today I ask him about the situation in the Ukraine: How we got here; what it means; what can be done; and who should be most worried.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: How did we get here in the Ukraine?

MICHAEL RUBIN: Many will blame Obama, but let’s be clear: Vladimir Putin bears chief responsibility. The fault in Washington was a failure to recognize Putin’s true character. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama chose to pretend that Putin had changed, hoping that if they repeated the mantra enough that the Cold War was over, it would come true. Inaction after Russia’s invasion of Georgia made matters worse, since it convinced Putin that he could get away with murder. Rogues push until someone pushes back.

LOPEZ: What is Putin thinking?

RUBIN: Putin wants to restore Russian influence over what he sees as its natural sphere of influence, that is, over the countries of the former Soviet Union and perhaps Eastern Europe. The West might condemn, but he figures, in for a penny, in for a pound. Why not digest Eastern Ukraine in addition to Crimea if the worst he faces is double secret probation? With Obama’s threats empty, Angela Merkel’s tendency to sacrifice principle for short-term economic gain, and the leverage Russia has over the withdrawal of American equipment from Afghanistan, Putin figures this is the perfect time. When Machiavelli faces down a Chamberlain, Machiavelli always wins. 

LOPEZ: What are the Maidans and what is most important to understand about them?

RUBIN: We shouldn’t assume that Ukraine belongs in the Russian sphere of influence. Ukrainians have long resisted Russia, and haven’t forgotten Stalin’s deliberate starvation and murder of millions. Freedom and liberty matter to billions around the globe, even if sophisticated diplomats and politicians want to downplay the desire of ordinary people to free themselves from the yoke of oppression.

LOPEZ: What does this say about U.S. standing in the world?

RUBIN: If Jimmy Carter and Dennis Rodman could somehow have a child together, it would be Obama. His naïveté about and pandering to dictators have made him a laughing stock on the world stage. As an academic and senator, Obama bloviated without consequence. Red lines became part of a rhetorical stump speech without Obama reflecting about how he put credibility on the line. The danger now is that the North Koreans, Iranians, and Venezuelans have concluded Obama is an empty suit. American allies know they can’t count on us. The next two years will be the most dangerous in generations.

LOPEZ: Can the Obama administration do anything?

RUBIN:  I think the question should be does Obama want to do anything, or does he honestly believe that the decline of American power would be good for the world. Let’s assume he means well, however.

First, it’s time for Obama to reconsider the scope of defense cuts. The Pentagon has bloat, but rather than trim with a scalpel, Obama wields an ax. Putin has shown that now is not the time to withdrawal from the world stage.

With regard to the Ukraine, what can be done? Putin said he’s not going to invade, but this is the usual two steps forward, one step back. He’s conceding enough to diffuse momentum but I wouldn’t expect much to change in Russian behavior despite his rhetoric.The Crimea is lost. Had we drawn a line after the Russian invasion of Georgia and helped fortify other regional states, we might not be in this situation now, but neither Bush nor Obama reacted decisively to that event. Obama’s reset made matters worse, especially after he threw Poland and the Czech Republic under the bus by reneging on promised anti-ballistic-missile facilities in those countries.

It’s time to reinforce the defense of the Baltic states and Poland. We move our bases eastward, should those countries desire. Putin has delusions of grandeur. The Russian army is strong enough to kick around small neighbors, but it is not a match for the United States.

Let’s hope that Obama is prepared to reset the reset. Putin has shredded the Budapest Memorandum in which Russia recognized Ukrainian sovereignty. If he’s unwilling to abide by agreements Russia has made, why should we trust him on any other treaty?

We also have economic arrows in our quiver. Sanctions do matter. We can expand the Magnitsky Act, and move to remove Russia from the World Trade Organization. No one connected to the Russian government should receive visas to take their vacations in Miami or on the Riviera. After years of oil-fueled growth, Putinism and its associated mismanagement and corruption have led to tremendous stagnation to the point where Russians now mock him as the second coming of Leonid Brezhnev. This might cause Russia pain and make Putin think twice about pushing further, but it’s likely too late for the Crimea.

LOPEZ: What is possible for Ukraine to do in response to Russian aggression?

RUBIN: If Putin is so over confident or stupid that he moves into Kiev or western Ukraine, he will face an insurgency. Ukrainians can and will fight. But Putin likely knows he can bite off the Crimea and perhaps eastern Ukraine and get away with it.

LOPEZ: What’s the likely future for Ukraine?

RUBIN: It will effectively be a rump state. With time, Putin will seek to undercut the rest to make it a puppet, just as Belarus is right now.


LOPEZ: What does this mean for anyone within the threat of Russian aggression?

RUBIN: With the United States and European Union weak, other countries bordering Russia will begin to make accommodation to the Kremlin because they will believe they have little other choice.

LOPEZ: Who should be most worried? 

RUBIN: South Korea, Estonia, Israel, Japan, Taiwan. The United States has shown it doesn’t stand up for allies and signaled to tyrants and would-be aggressors that it’s open season.

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