The United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine,” President Barack Obama said in a brief statement from the White House after Russia invaded Crimea Feb. 28.
Then he left for the Washington Hilton to declare the bar open at a function for the Democratic National Committee. When intelligence officials came to the White House the next day for a briefing, the president didn’t attend.
If Mr. Obama had been serious about stopping Russian aggression, he wouldn’t have put “consequences” off to some time in the future, wrote columnist Charles Krauthammer. “What he’s saying is we’re not really going to do anything.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin must have read the president’s remarks the same way.
“Rarely has a threat from a U.S. president been dismissed as quickly — and comprehensively — as Obama’s warning Friday night,” noted Washington Post reporter Scott Wilson.
Russia is on the wrong side of history, Mr. Obama told reporters Monday.
The seizure of the Crimea “is really 19th-century behavior in the 21st century,” said Secretary of State John Kerry.
Mr. Putin, alas, “has not received the memo on 21st-century behavior,” said The Washington Post editorial board.
When the president and his aides lecture Mr. Putin, they come across as “patronizing or out of touch,” according to Johns Hopkins University Prof. James Mann.
“We are issuing pathetic declarations which nobody is taking seriously,” Russian expert Dmitri Simes told The New Republic.
“If you are effectively taking the stick option off the table, then what are you left with?” Andrew C. Kuchins, who heads the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Washington Post. “I don’t think that Obama and his people really understand how others in the world are viewing his policies.”
What the world sees is a pattern of bluster and retreat by a president reluctant to exercise leadership or protect American interests.
Because Mr. Obama “blinked” after drawing a “red line” in Syria last fall, Mr. Putin doesn’t believe anything he says, Russian chess master and human rights advocate Garry Kasparov told CNN’s Jake Tapper.
The old KGB hand’s ambition to put the Soviet Union back together is so poorly kept a secret the plot of Tom Clancy’s last novel — he died in October — is a Russian invasion of Crimea.
But the administration ignored all the warning signs.
“Washington’s flat-footed, deer-in-the-headlights incomprehension about Russia’s Crimean adventure undermines President Obama’s broader credibility in a deeply damaging way,” said Walter Russell Mead, editor of the American Interest.
“If he could be this blind and misguided about Vladimir Putin,” Prof. Mead said, how can foreign leaders trust his judgment about anything else?
More important to all (save perhaps Mr. Obama) than Mr. Obama’s reputation is preventing war. Mr. Putin said he seized Crimea to protect ethnic Russians there. Adolf Hitler said he was acting to protect ethnic German minorities to justify his aggression against Czechoslovakia and Poland.
Since ethnic Russians were in no danger, I suspect Mr. Putin’s conquest of Crimea has more to do with the fact the Soviet Union’s Black Sea Fleet was based there.
The Soviet Baltic Fleet was based at Kaliningrad, now an enclave separated from Russia proper by the Baltic states of Lithuania, Estonia (24.8 percent ethnic Russian) and Latvia (26.2 percent ethnic Russian) and Russian ally Belarus.
We don’t know where, or when, Russia will strike next. But we can be certain Vladimir Putin will take what he wants until he suffers consequences more formidable than a scolding as a Cold War relic.
The Ukraine debacle has led some to compare Mr. Obama to the hapless Jimmy Carter. This is unfair — to Mr. Carter. After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, he woke up and smelled the coffee.
“For five years, President Obama has led a foreign policy based more on how he thinks the world should operate than on reality,” said the editors of The Washington Post.
Even now, when reality collides with his worldview, Mr. Obama clings to his fantasies. His inability or unwillingness to recognize the world as it is may be more dangerous than Mr. Putin’s aggression.
Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1476).