Loose Canons

The Road to Putingrad

Somnolent Obama no match for rampaging Putin.

By 3.31.14

UPI
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President Obama’s diplomacy by tourism has gone very sour. After being scolded by the Pope for Obamacare’s forcing religious institutions to provide contraception and abortion coverage, Obama jetted to Saudi Arabia where he was scolded by the Saudi king about his failure to send aid to the Syrians fighting Bashar Assad and his nuclear agreement with Iran.

It’s getting tiresome. President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry are carrying on as if they have everything under control, every crisis has abated, and no one should be overly concerned. By now they must have noticed that every world leader disagrees with them. And some take pleasure in demonstrating their disregard for the weakness Obama and Kerry display every day.

The Obama-Kerry show delights Russian President Putin. He is enjoying his ability to play them both as puppets on strings. All is decidedly not well, especially in Ukraine and the entirety of Eastern Europe.

Obama is doing his best to maintain the pretense. In Rome for various meetings with European leaders and with the Pope, Obama told CBS, “It’s well-known and well-acknowledged that you’ve seen a range of troops massing along that border under the guise of military exercises. But these are not what Russia would normally be doing. And, you know, it may simply be an effort to intimidate Ukraine or it may be that they’ve got additional plans,” Obama said. “And in either case, what we need right now to resolve and de-escalate the situation would be for Russia to move back those troops and to begin negotiations directly with the Ukrainian government, as well as the international community.”

His was a statement that would have befitted Dwight Eisenhower, or Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan because they had earned their shares of America’s leadership role in Europe. Obama has not. Obama implied — “what we need right now…” — that if we didn’t get what we needed, there would be political and/or military consequences for Russia.

If Obama had any knowledge of history he would have known that — at least since Peter the Great — Putin is doing precisely what Russia would normally be doing. And if he was aware of things outside his White House bubble, he’d know that Putin has a portrait of Peter the Great hanging in his office. But, even then, he might not be able to understand what history and the portrait’s place of prominence mean.

But Putin couldn’t care less what Obama thinks “we” need because Obama hasn’t tried to lead Europe in any direction. Thus, Putin’s confidently intent on what he wants.

From Rome, Obama headed to Saudi Arabia where he was surprised by a call from Russian President Putin. As we’ve come to expect, there are two versions of the call.

The White House said that Obama and Putin discussed the need for a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine crisis. The Kremlin said that Putin told Obama that there was a need for “possible steps by the international community to help stabilize the situation” in Ukraine. According to a Financial Times report, Putin said the instability was caused by “continued rampage of extremists” attacking peaceful residents in Ukraine “with impunity.”

It’s hard to deal with rampaging extremists when there are none, as the facts on the ground in Ukraine indicate. And it’s impossible to affect the situation when you have rampaging somnolence in the White House.

As a result of Putin’s call, Kerry’s plane home from Saudi Arabia was diverted and Kerry was sent back to Paris for what was reported to be a yet-to-be-scheduled meeting with Putin’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. So Kerry went, like a would-be starlet eagerly awaiting her turn on the casting couch, in the hopes of meeting Lavrov to learn what Putin’s next move might be.

Obama told Putin that he would agree to a diplomatic solution of the Ukraine mess “only if [Moscow] pulls back its troops and does not take any steps to further violate Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty”.

What that means is that the Ukraine crisis, as far as Putin has wished to push, will be resolved by his keeping the Crimean Peninsula. Which may be all he wants for the moment.

Putin knows that Peter acquired Estonia, Latvia, and Finland. Putin has already spoken about his “concern” for the safety of Russian-speaking Estonians, but is restrained by Estonia’s (and Finland’s) memberships in NATO. Moldova, another NATO member, is clearly on Putin’s mind.

In Moldova — which lies directly west of Ukraine — the Russian-speaking Transdniestria region has declared independence from the rest of Moldova and apparently desires to join the Russian Federation. The Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, recently said that “There is absolutely sufficient [Russian] force postured on the eastern border of Ukraine to run to Transdniester if the decision was made to do that, and that is very worrisome.”

To invade a NATO member, especially on an invented pretext like Putin did for his seizure of the Crimea, is a bridge Putin may not want to cross just yet. But the weakness of the alliance’s members may make it a temptation he may not be able to resist.

North and west of the Crimea, across the Dnieper River, is about 80% of Ukraine and all of Moldova. Either or both are within Putin’s easy reach.

Under Article 5 of the NATO charter, the members agree that an attack on any one of them is the equivalent of an attack on all, and they agree individually and collectively to take whatever action is necessary — including the use of armed forces — to restore and maintain the security of the NATO region. In other words, we — as well as Britain, France, and the rest — are bound by treaty to go to war to defend Moldova or any other member state. But when a region of a country decides to secede, and if the original country doesn’t or can’t object, what happens?

Ukraine isn’t a NATO member, so if Russia sends troops into Ukraine, taking over large chunks of it on the way to Moldova, there’s no obligation to defend Ukraine. Likewise for an independent region of Moldova which — by declaring independence — has at least the appearance of an independent country entitled to self-determination. If it wants to become part of the Russian Federation, it’s not up to us to stop it.

Where is the red line drawn now? NATO has never been weaker. We spend about 4.5% of our GDP on the defense budget, and next year we’re cutting the defense budget massively again. As the Wall Street Journal reported last week, among the NATO members, only Britain spends more than half of that. France’s Hollande is spectacularly unpopular at home. David Cameron speaks defensively about defense cuts and has cut current military capabilities severely to bet on future ones that may or may not ever be obtained. Belgium’s army still drills with toy rifles.

Putin isn’t crazy. He’ll not give NATO any excuse to intervene in his actions. When he gobbles up more of Ukraine, he’ll call it another humanitarian rescue mission. When he goes into Moldova, it’ll only be on the pretext of giving the Transdniestrians what they declare they want.

Maybe when he renames St. Petersburg “Putingrad,” we’ll finally get the message.

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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. He is coauthor (with Herbert London) of the new book The BDS War Against Israel. You can follow him on Twitter@jedbabbin.