Before we get to the substance of it, here’s a wider shot of the backdrop for today’s statement. Kneel before Zod, Vladimir.
— Jon Gabriel (@exjon) March 4, 2014
Anyway. Is O right that the Crimea walkover is more a sign of Russian weakness than of strength? And is there any way to answer that question dispassionately knowing how self-serving his spin here is? There’s nothing more Hopenchangey than watching this guy try to frame western impotence in the face of Russian aggression as some sort of image problem that can be corrected by his pals in the media, especially knowing that his “red line” humiliation last year in Syria surely emboldened Putin internationally. Plus, I don’t quite follow his read on what Russian satellites are apt to do now that Moscow’s brought a boot down on Ukraine. If you’re a Russian border state that’s intrigued by closer ties to the EU, what does Moscow have to offer you except the threat of invasion (or, at a minimum, turning off the gas/oil tap) if you get too frisky with the west? Clamping down on Crimea is a quintessential “pour encourager les autres” move by Putin, and surely his best bet to keep those satellites in Russia’s orbit.
But then, that’s Obama’s point. Only a state with comparatively little to offer economically would feel obliged to roll into Crimea when there was no Ukrainian threat to the peninsula and certainly no Ukrainian threat to Russia’s base in Sevastopol. They can’t offer their satellite states a more attractive political model than the EU so they’re reduced to gratuitous muscle-flexing to keep them in line. Like Ross Douthat said a few weeks ago, the striking thing about Putin is that, despite his reputation as a geopolitical grand master, he struggles to keep Ukraine in line in a way that earlier Russian autocracies never did. The fact that the Euromaidan was able to chase Yanukovych, his puppet, across the border is proof enough of his blundering. Putin’s near-term grand ambition is to build a Eurasian Union with Russia’s satellites as an economic counterweight to the EU, but not even the prospect of that was enough to lure Kiev to Russia’s side peacefully. He runs a fantastically corrupt, rapidly depopulating kleptocracy — George Will likes to call Russia a third-world country with a first-world army — and, go figure, his neighbors aren’t keen to gamble their national futures on an alliance with it unless they’re forced. (If you believe a poll taken in mid-February, before Yanukovych was toppled, only 41 percent of Crimeans want to become part of Russia.) That’s what Obama means by weakness, and that’s why you see him here hammering the point that nations should be free to choose their destiny via elections. Given a truly free choice, how many of Russia’s neighbors would opt to partner with the Moscow Mussolini instead of the EU? He can’t win the battle of ideas. He can only win wars.
But that’s what makes Putin dangerous. The more insecure he feels, the bolder he might get. And the bolder he gets without paying a price for it, the bolder other powers might get. That’s really why O’s mumbling about sanctions and other penalties — not because he cares much about Ukraine but because the things he does care about, like making a deal with Iran, get harder every time something like this happens.