If there is a new cold war with Russia, many observers believe the U.S. is losing it.

First under President George W. Bush and now under President Obama, the U.S. and Vladimir Putin’s Russia have engaged in a series of foreign policy battles — and Putin has repeatedly got his way.

The Russian president’s objective is clear. He wants to reassert Russia’s influence in Eastern Europe while preventing NATO’s further expansion toward Russia, said Erik Brattberg, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council…

“Putin sees Obama as a weak leader. I would point to Syria in particular. We drew a red line and didn’t back it up,” he said.

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When Mr. Putin made his first public remarks on the crisis on Tuesday, he said that Russia would not support Crimea’s efforts to secede. On Friday, the Kremlin allowed a mass pro-secession rally in Red Square while senior lawmakers loyal to Mr. Putin welcomed a delegation from Crimea and pledged support to make it a new province of the Russian Federation.

An examination of the seismic events that set off the most threatening East-West confrontation since the Cold War era, based on Mr. Putin’s public remarks and interviews with officials, diplomats and analysts here, suggests that the Kremlin’s strategy emerged haphazardly, even misleadingly, over a tense and momentous week, as an emotional Mr. Putin acted out of what the officials described as a deep sense of betrayal and grievance, especially toward the United States and Europe.

Some of those decisions, particularly the one to invade Crimea, then took on a life of their own, analysts said, unleashing a wave of nationalistic fervor for the peninsula’s reunification with Russia that the Kremlin has so far proved unwilling, or perhaps unable, to tamp down…

“It seems the whole logic here is almost entirely the product of one particular mind,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, a Russian analyst and editor of the quarterly journal Russia in Global Affairs.

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But then, President Obama announced sanctions against Russia, banning travel of key officials, freezing assets, and suspending international forums. The question that no one appeared to acknowledge, much less ask or answer: How is it possible to do escalation and de-escalation at the same time?…

[Now] Putin can sit and wait. He has the upper hand in this game—and the more the West plays on his terms, the stronger his hand will seem. Sanctions won’t change his behavior, except to stiffen it—and once that becomes clear, Putin will seem stronger, the West will seem weaker, and a solution to the Ukraine crisis will recede in the distance…

Sanctions do have a place in this sort of confrontation, but Obama got the sequencing wrong. The “costs” and “consequences” of Russia’s actions should have been laid out on the table as measures that he would take if Russia didn’t take steps to wind down the crisis. If possible (and maybe it isn’t anymore), this warning could have been conveyed in private, and in any case there should have been no public demands on precisely what winding-down steps the Russians must take. Whatever leverage we might have had is lost, once the chips are already spent—and are shown to have no value…

When this crisis got underway two weeks ago, it seemed absurd that the United States and Russia might go to war over the fate of Ukraine. But both of their leaders have stumbled and bumbled so badly in the meantime, and the exit-ramp is so littered with bombs and barricades, nothing seems impossible.

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The longer-term task is to answer Putin’s statement about Europe’s post-Cold War future. He is saying that Ukraine will never be free to make its own choices — a message meant to reverberate in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states — and that Russia has special interests it will pursue at all costs. For Putin, the Cold War ended “tragically.” He will turn the clock back as far as intimidation through military power, economic leverage and Western inaction will allow.

After Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, the United States sent ships into the Black Sea, airlifted Georgian military forces from Iraq back to their home bases and sent humanitarian aid. Russia was denied its ultimate goal of overthrowing the democratically elected government, an admission made to me by the Russian foreign minister. The United States and Europe could agree on only a few actions to isolate Russia politically…

This time has to be different. Putin is playing for the long haul, cleverly exploiting every opening he sees. So must we, practicing strategic patience if he is to be stopped. Moscow is not immune from pressure. This is not 1968, and Russia is not the Soviet Union. The Russians need foreign investment; oligarchs like traveling to Paris and London, and there are plenty of ill-gotten gains stored in bank accounts abroad; the syndicate that runs Russia cannot tolerate lower oil prices; neither can the Kremlin’s budget, which sustains subsidies toward constituencies that support Putin. Soon, North America’s bounty of oil and gas will swamp Moscow’s capacity. Authorizing the Keystone XL pipeline and championing natural gas exports would signal that we intend to do precisely that. And Europe should finally diversify its energy supply and develop pipelines that do not run through Russia.

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Where others saw the agitprop of an emboldened authoritarian, the White House chose to see hope. Administration officials seized on one sentence of his blather and expressed optimism. “Regarding the deployment of troops, the use of armed forces so far, there is no need for it.  .  .  . Such a measure would certainly be the very last resort,” Putin said. Obama national security officials saw this claim—which came days after Russian troops had been deployed—as evidence that Putin was looking for an “off-ramp.” And soon we had a name for this new Obama approach to the crisis: “de-escalation.”

It’s not de-escalation, it’s delusion. And it’s dangerous…

For five years, the Obama administration has chosen to see the world as they wish it to be, not as it is. In this fantasy world, the attack in Fort Hood is “workplace violence.” The Christmas Day bomber is an “isolated extremist.” The attempted bombing in Times Square is a “one-off” attack. The attacks in Benghazi are a “spontaneous” reaction to a YouTube video. Al Qaeda is on the run. Bashar al-Assad is a “reformer.” The Iranian regime can be sweet-talked out of its nuclear weapons program. And Vladimir Putin is a new, post-Cold War Russian leader…

Vladimir Putin, it turns out, is who we thought he was. Unfortunately, so is Barack Obama.

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But grim as the headlines from Ukraine are, the feeling in the capital is nothing like the cold fear that gripped Washington when children were taught to “duck and cover” and to know the locations of fallout shelters whose ominous black and yellow logos still dot some federal buildings around town. POLITICO’s White House reporters have not been given instructions to report to a top-secret site in case of attack, as NBC’s Sander Vanocur was at the height of the Cuban missile crisis…

[E]ven at the height of the Cold War, the United States generally held back from direct confrontation with the Soviet Union in the face of its most provocative acts within its own sphere of influence — and no American president has ever had good options to the contrary…

“There’s all this posturing, all this talk of flexing our muscles,” said presidential historian Robert Dallek. “But happily, when push comes to shove, we show ourselves to be more restrained and sensible. We don’t really have all that many options, short of getting into war with them, and that would be incredibly stupid.”…

In at least one important respect, this crisis is not like those of the past. A Western Europe enriched and entangled in commerce with Russian capitalist oligarchs is less interested in confrontation with Putin than an earlier generation of European leaders were with Communist chiefs like Khrushchev. And a Russia still discomfited by the 1990s inclusion by NATO of its former Eastern European satellites is more belligerent than the old Soviet Union was without a competing security alliance adjoining its very border.

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“People in Odessa, Mykolaiv, Donetsk and Dnipropetrovsk are coming out to defend their country,” Mr. Soboliev said. “They have never liked the western Ukrainian, Galician point of view. But they are showing themselves to be equally patriotic. They are defending their country from foreign aggression. Fantastical things are happening.”

This conflict could flare into Europe’s first major war of the 21st century, and Crimea may never again be part of Ukraine. But no matter what happens over the next few months, or even years, Mr. Putin and his vision of an authoritarian, Russian-dominated former Soviet space have already lost. Democratic, independent Ukraine, and the messy, querulous (but also free and law-abiding) European idea have won…

Mr. Putin is explicitly drawing on that [Soviet] heritage and fitfully trying to reshape it into a new state capitalist system that can compete and flourish globally. An alliance with Mr. Yanukovych’s Ukraine was an essential part of that plan.

That effort has now failed. Whatever Mr. Putin achieves in Ukraine, it will not be partnership with a Slavic younger brother enthusiastically joining in his neo-imperialist, neo-Soviet project.

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Mr. Putin seems to be “following the old Soviet playbook,” in Ukraine, Strobe Talbott, an expert on the history of the Cold War, told me this week. “But back then, there was no concern about what would happen to the Soviet stock market. If, in fact, Putin is cooling his jets and might even blink, it’s probably because of rising concern about the price Russia would have to pay.”…

By contrast, today “Russia is too weak and vulnerable economically to go to war,” Mr. Aslund said. “The Kremlin’s fundamental mistake has been to ignore its economic weakness and dependence on Europe. Almost half of Russia’s exports go to Europe, and three-quarters of its total exports consist of oil and gas. The energy boom is over, and Europe can turn the tables on Russia after its prior gas supply cuts in 2006 and 2009. Europe can replace this gas with liquefied natural gas, gas from Norway and shale gas. If the European Union sanctioned Russia’s gas supply to Europe, Russia would lose $100 billion or one-fifth of its export revenues, and the Russian economy would be in rampant crisis.”…

And while the Cold War was a global contest between Marxism and capitalism, there is today “no real ideological component to the conflict except that Putin has become the personification of rejecting the West as a model,” Mr. Talbott said. “He wants to promote a Eurasian community dominated by Moscow, but that’s not an ideology. Russia’s economy may be an example of crony capitalism, but it is capitalism. There’s not even a shadow of Marxism-Leninism now.”

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