NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

Who’s the villain here?

Hello, people … Obama didn’t invade Ukraine, Putin did

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Shrewd reporting about the Ukraine crisis comes from The Onion, which declared that American reaction is evenly divided — between the “wholly indifferent” and the “grossly misinformed.”

In the latter category, it seems, belong the chest-thumpers who blame the Crimea catastrophe on President Barack Obama.

“We have a weak and indecisive president that invites aggression,” scolded Sen. Lindsey Graham (revealing his own weakness: grammar). “President Obama needs to do something!”

Likewise, Sen. John McCain complains that Mr. Obama’s foreign policy is “feckless,” so that “nobody believes in America’s strength anymore.”

Rep. Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, worries that Russia is “running circles around us.” The Washington Post warns in a stinging editorial that “President Obama’s foreign policy is based on fantasy.” The Wall Street Journal cautions that the basic problem is “Obama’s retreat from global leadership.”

Oh, come on! The villain here is named Putin, not Obama, and we should have learned to feel nervous when hawks jump up and down and say “do something!” We tried that in Iraq. When there are no good options, a flexing of muscles by NATO or by U.S. warships in the Black Sea would only reinforce Russian President Vladimir Putin’s narrative to his home audience while raising the risk of conflict by accident or miscalculation.

Look, it’s true that Mr. Obama’s foreign policy has often been disappointing. Tripling the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan was a mistake. So was rejecting the advice of Hillary Clinton and David Petraeus to arm the moderate Syrian opposition. The Obama pivot to Asia has stalled, serious engagement with Pakistan ended with the death of Richard Holbrooke, and Mr. Obama has appointed some appallingly uninformed campaign donors to be ambassadors.

Then again, Mr. Obama’s focus on nation-building at home is a nice change of pace from the Bush years. Moreover, Middle East peace talks are a plus and talking to Iran is preferable to loose talk about bombing Natanz.

The basic constraint is that there are more problems in international relations than solutions. The critics I cite often rely on two fallacies: first, that Mr. Putin is driven by Mr. Obama’s weakness; second, that the seizure of Crimea is a great win for Russia.

The Soviet Union didn’t invade Hungary because of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s weakness, nor Czechoslovakia because of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s weakness. Russia didn’t help dismember Moldova because of President George H.W. Bush’s weakness or invade Georgia because of President George W. Bush’s.

We don’t have much leverage because Mr. Putin cares far more about Ukraine than he does about being in the G-8. So, by all means, let’s raise the cost of aggression with banking sanctions, but let’s also recognize that, in the long run, it’s Mr. Putin who has stumbled here.

Russia has just driven Ukraine into the West’s orbit and acquired a long-term headache. Russia is already pouring billions of dollars into the bits of Georgia and Moldova that it pilfered, and now it’ll have to subsidize Crimea (which depends on Ukraine for water and electricity).

Mr. Putin’s other problem: If Crimea becomes independent, its pro-Russian population will no longer vote in Ukrainian elections. The upshot would be Ukraine skewing even more to the West.

My father grew up in western Ukraine, near Chernivtsi. Our family house was in better shape in the 1930s than it is today. A highway that my grandfather helped build a century ago was barely passable on my last visit. Corruption is far worse today. The entire system has failed, so, of course, western Ukrainians look across the border at a thriving Poland, now firmly embedded in Europe, and see that as a far better model for the future.

Likewise, in a couple of decades, Russians may well look over the border at a thriving, European Ukraine and want that model for themselves as well. So be strong, Sens. Graham and McCain: Mr. Putin’s advantage is temporary.

Republicans should be pointing to Mr. Obama’s genuine giant foreign policy failure — Syria — and not Ukraine.

The right’s demands that Mr. Obama confront Mr. Putin also seem odd because many on the right have praised Mr. Putin and his traditional values. The American Conservative suggested in December that Mr. Putin might be “one of us,” and Rudy Giuliani lately hailed Mr. Putin’s decisiveness and said: “That’s what you call a leader.”

Mr. Giuliani’s proposed solution to the Ukraine crisis: “We push him around. That’s the only thing a bully understands.”

It’s heart-stoppingly brave of unarmed Ukrainian soldiers, singing for courage, to walk toward Russian troops who point machine guns at them and then fire in the air. But idle calls from the comfort of television studios for the president to “do something” or to push Vladimir Putin around? These strike me as not brave, just puerile.

Nicholas D. Kristof is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.



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