President Putin is a multitasker. This week, while President Putin was comforting the Chinese first lady in Beijing, thousands of miles away his military forces were reinvading Ukraine. According to NATO and sources in eastern Ukraine, the invasion forces are combined arms. That means this reinvasion is neither covert nor some half-hearted show of force.
Russia’s intent is clear. The facts are clear. In recent days, pro-Russian rebels have been massing Russian-supplied arms in Donetsk. Their gaze is focused on Ukraine’s southern cities of Berdyansk and Mariupol, which border the Sea of Azov and are wedged between Russia’s southern military district and Crimea. Controlling this locale would enable Putin to form an anchor in contiguous territory and to dominate the Black Sea. Now, with Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko promising to confront the rebels, Putin is moving to support his covert position.
Of course, Putin’s actions are hardly surprising. As I’ve explained many times before, in pursuing Russian hegemony in southeastern Ukraine, Putin has adopted a versatile, two-pronged strategy. Where he can restrain Ukrainian military reprisals by signing peace deals, such as early September’s Minsk protocol, Putin preferences covert force. It allows him to achieve the strategic effect of invading while mitigating the strategic costs of an open confrontation. But where, as now, Ukraine challenges his covert activity, he is quick to respond with overwhelming military force.
And the Obama administration continues to enable Russia’s strategy. Consider how President Obama’s national-security spokesman Ben Rhodes responded to Russia’s latest escalation: “Clearly, what we’ve seen is a troubling focus from President Putin on the situation in Ukraine that is going to demand a response from the international community going forward.” Rhodes continued, “I don’t think we’re necessarily looking to . . . go out of our way to make the focus of these multilateral meetings Ukraine.”
This language, so deliberately vague and so callously disinterested, belongs in a Team America movie. But its unfortunate reality isn’t only testament to Obama’s foreign-policy delusion; it is also fuel to Putin’s fire. After all, aware that America lacks the resolve to impose economic sanctions that might compel him to change course, Putin has little incentive to back down. Ukraine’s military is no real threat to his force, so he pushes on.
Unfortunately, it’s not just Ukraine that suffers from America’s acquiescence to aggression. As I’ve noted before, credibility matters a great deal in international affairs. By signaling weakness in Ukraine, the United States is encouraging others toward similar brinkmanship. At present, this truth is borne out by the actions of both Iran and China. Instead of grasping Putin’s fiscal vulnerability in light of lower oil prices (the key source of Russia’s revenue), Obama allows the KGB colonel to run riot across Europe. Poland, Moldova (read this), and the Baltic states fear that they’re next.
Regardless, in the days ahead, as evidence of President Putin’s activities becomes undeniable, President Obama must bring tough new sanctions. Does anyone seriously believe that relying on the EU or the U.N. will do anything? Conversely, if the White House believes America has little at stake in Ukraine, let it say so openly: Without reciprocal action, words of condemnation are worse than nothing.
— Tom Rogan, based in Washington, D.C., is a columnist for the Daily Telegraph and a contributor to The McLaughlin Group. He holds the Tony Blankley Chair at the Steamboat Institute and tweets @TomRtweets.