March 31, 2014
By Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D.
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
Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D.
Read More >>
Request an interview >>
Please complete the following form to request an interview with a Heritage expert.
Please note that all fields must be completed.
Heritage's daily Morning Bell e-mail keeps you updated on the ongoing policy battles in Washington and around the country.
The subscription is free and delivers you the latest conservative policy perspectives on the news each weekday--straight from Heritage experts.
The Morning Bell is your daily wake-up call offering a fresh, conservative analysis of the news.
More than 450,000 Americans rely on Heritage's Morning Bell to stay up to date on the policy battles that affect them.
Rush Limbaugh says "The Heritage Foundation's Morning Bell is just terrific!"
Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL) says it's "a great way to start the day for any conservative who wants to get America back on track."
Sign up to start your free subscription today!
The Heritage Foundation is the nation’s most broadly supported public policy research institute,
with hundreds of thousands of individual, foundation and corporate donors. Heritage, founded in
February 1973, has a staff of 275 and an annual expense budget of $82.4 million.
Our mission is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free
enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national
defense. Read More
© 2014, The Heritage Foundation Conservative policy research since 1973