March 3, 2014

Obama Plays Checkers but Putin Plays Chess

Dealing with the situation in Ukraine is going to take more than empty rhetoric.

Russia’s well planned and lightning fast “military intervention” in Ukraine’s Crimea region in the last few days has made clear to the world that Vladimir Putin fully intends to keep Ukraine under his thumb. Late last week, after Ukraine’s corrupt president Viktor Yanukovych fled Kiev to avoid arrest on murder charges in the deaths of protesters, a number of unidentified soldiers seized control of Crimea, which borders the strategically important Black Sea. The soldiers erected Russian flags at government buildings and claimed to be acting in defense of the region’s Russian-speaking population. Russian troops have mobilized, and the Russian air force is also making a show of force in the region.

In Kiev, the newly elected leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk pledged to prevent the secession of Crimea, but the fragile government is unlikely to be able to stop Russia’s breakup of the country without Western help. Russia has the power to isolate Ukraine by shutting down the flow of gas and agricultural products, and it has already cut off much needed economic aid. The EU and the International Monetary Fund have cobbled together an aid package to keep Ukraine from economic oblivion, and the G8 cancelled a meeting scheduled to take place in Sochi while threatening to boot Russia from the group altogether.

But Ukraine needs more than empty rhetoric – more than a 90-minute phone conversation between Putin and Barack Obama with an accompanying photo. Keep in mind Obama’s infamous “reset” button from 2009. He declared much too quickly that “the reset button has worked.” Clearly it hasn’t.

The U.S. needs to show resolve not only by openly siding with Ukraine, but also by exercising some military muscle of its own. Deploying a carrier battle group to the Black Sea as a show of force would be a good start. Unfortunately, this is Barack Obama’s America, and we have no reason to expect anything but the feckless leadership he has continuously demonstrated on the international stage. Putin would probably not be emboldened to reclaim Ukraine by force if Obama showed some backbone. But the Russian leader sees Obama’s lack of respect for America’s place in the world and his utter lack of concern for international affairs as a sign that he is free to continue building his new Russian empire.

As House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI) put it, “Putin is playing chess and we’re playing marbles.”

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