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March 31, 2014

Obama fails the Crimea Rorschach test

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Think of the Ukraine crisis as a Rorschach test. Russia has shown President Obama an inkblot that looks like a bear, and all he sees is a frightened rabbit.
Vladimir Putin’s designs on Ukraine could not be clearer. Yet Mr. Obama clings to the notion that Moscow is motivated by weakness and fear.

Russia is acting, he says, “not out of strength, but out of weakness,” and from the groundless fear that we’re trying to “encircl[e] Russia.” So the real problem is us. If we could only reassure Mr. Putin we mean no harm, maybe he’ll back off.

Sometimes, though, a bear really is a bear. Mr. Putin may not have some grand plan worked out to the last detail, but he is an opportunist. And, unlike Mr. Obama, he appears not to be bluffing. Rather he’s a man who, step by step, appears to be coldly calculating his options.

The “Putin fears us” narrative offers a possible win-win setup for Mr. Obama, however. If the Russian stops at annexing Crimea, Mr. Obama can claim victory. (“The sanctions worked!”) If Russia invades Ukraine? Well, it was Mr. Putin’s “paranoia’ that made him do it — paranoia supposedly stoked by American hawks like Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain.

There are lots of problems with this line of reasoning. For one thing, there’s no reason to think that this is how Mr. Putin views the situation. He may not be afraid of confrontation over Ukraine. But he may well think that Mr. Obama is. That would be a reasonable interpretation of Mr. Obama’s blowing hot and cold in the crisis — threatening sanctions one day while implying he’s open to negotiations to assuage Russia’s paranoia.

Beyond that, such reasoning confirms the legitimacy of Mr. Putin’s claim that he’s merely responding to our threats. If Western intimidation truly is the source of the conflict, what’s to stop Mr. Putin at Ukraine? Why not take on the Baltic states or even Poland? The insatiability of Mr. Putin’s appetite thus becomes the only truly limiting factor in the crisis, because he now knows that our president wants an “off-ramp” from the crisis more than he does.

The deeper problem is that President Obama seems truly to be wedded to a worldview that discounts hard military power in state relations. He said as much in Europe last week when he predicted the eventual victory of the West over Russia “not because of the strength of our arms or the size of our economies,” but “because the ideals that we affirm are true … [and] universal.” By positing our ideals and power as either/or propositions, the president seems not to realize that it was the both of them working together that has made for a successful American foreign policy. In fact, it was what won World War II and the Cold War.

Throughout the Ukraine crisis, Mr. Obama’s signature diplomatic approach has been to speak loudly but to carry a very small stick. At times, his rhetoric has been tough. But, in reality, all he has done is to impose sanctions on 20 Russian individuals (holding future ones in reserve in case Russia invades Ukraine). On Friday he even promised Mr. Putin “negotiations,” but over what exactly? Russia’s withdrawal from Crimea? Not likely. That leaves the two sides discussing issues such as what shape an international observer team could have to prove that the Ukrainians are not the Nazis the Russians claim they are.

Meanwhile Mr. Putin has placed at least 50,000 troops on Ukraine’s border. Admittedly no one knows what the Russians will do next (which is precisely what the Russian leader wants). But whatever they do, it will not be done out of fear. It will be done out of resentment, self-interest and the conviction that the American president is deeply confused over what motivates Russia.

 - Kim R. Holmes is a distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation's Davis Institute for International Studies.

Originally appeared in the Washington Times

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