Even if Putin goes no further – and few bookmakers would give odds on that – he has demonstrated that Russia in the Age of Putin is a power that must again be reckoned with. He also has cast further doubt on America’s determination and reliability, thereby making a mockery of what was supposed to be the Age of Obama.
A yawning gap separates Mr. Obama’s worldview from reality. That was vividly illustrated last month when he addressed “European Youth” at the ornate Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels. He had crossed the Atlantic, he told the young men and women of the continent, “to insist that we must never take for granted the progress that has been won here in Europe and advanced around the world, because the contest of ideas continues for your generation.”
He immediately added: “And that’s what’s at stake in Ukraine today. Russia’s leadership is challenging truths that only a few weeks ago seemed self-evident -- that in the 21st century, the borders of Europe cannot be redrawn with force, that international law matters, that people and nations can make their own decisions about their future.”
You see the contradiction? Taking progress for granted is exactly what Mr. Obama did when he assumed that the advent of a new century brought with it new and improved rules -- that with the flip of a calendar page borders somehow became inviolable, international law suddenly “mattered” (whatever that means), and tyrants could no longer determine the fate of nations.
The president went on to reassure his audience that “this is not another Cold War that we’re entering into. After all, unlike the Soviet Union, Russia leads no bloc of nations, no global ideology. The United States and NATO do not seek any conflict with Russia.”
All three of those assertions strike me as dubious. First, we may indeed be entering into something akin to the Cold War – if the definition of that term is a period of prolonged tension, low-intensity and proxy conflicts, and the possibility of a spark setting off a larger conflagration.
Second, though Mr. Putin may not be leading a bloc of nations, he is aligning with regimes based on anti-Western and anti-democratic ideologies -- e.g. Iran, Syria, North Korea. And Islamism – which, in its Iranian expression, Putin is enabling -- is as much a global ideology as was Communism.
Third, if the president is implying that that the Cold War came about because the U.S. and NATO sought conflict with the Soviet Union, he’s dead wrong: The root cause was Soviet empire-building and the dropping of an Iron Curtain over Eastern Europe.
Finally, Mr. Putin does not need to be reminded that America and NATO are not seeking conflict with him. He is confident that both fear conflict much more than he does, more than Iran’s rulers do, more even than the young dynastic dictator of North Korea. That’s a good reason for all of them to drive hard bargains, demand significant concessions and impose serious humiliations on America. Does President Obama grasp any of this and is he even attempting to develop a strategy to deal with it? That’s the real puzzle, isn’t it?