On Monday, four days after Vladimir Putin's minions in Ukraine shot down a passenger airliner carrying 298 people, including an American citizen, President Barack Obama emerged from the White House to issue a statement. Scowling at the camera, Obama stated: "Russia has extraordinary influence over these separatists. No one denies that. Russia has urged them on. Russia has trained them."
Finally, after fulminating for several minutes about the nastiness of the Russian government, Obama approached the predictable climax: threats of action.
Except that there were none.
Instead, Obama explained that if Russia were to ignore his warnings, it would "only further isolate itself from the international community, and the costs for Russia's behavior will only continue to increase."
To which Putin's only rational response would be laughter.
This is a Western humiliation on an epic scale. Obama and Europe could wrongly and weakly pass off the invasion and annexation of Crimea as a historical anomaly brutally corrected. They could ignore the further invasion of eastern Ukraine, focusing instead on those naughty Israelis busily defending themselves against rocket attacks from Hamas terrorists.
But now, the West has told Putin, in no uncertain terms, that his people can hit a civilian aircraft with a missile, and that there will be no costs.
How can a second-rate power hold the United States and NATO over a barrel?
Vice President Joe Biden gave the answer in an interview with The New Yorker, albeit unwittingly (though that should go without saying, given Biden's witlessness). While bragging about his gung-ho, macho political attitude, Biden related a story about meeting Putin -- a story he pledged was "absolutely, positively" true, meaning there is a three in four chance it is complete fiction.
But, taking the vice president at his word, the story went like this. Biden met Putin at the Kremlin in 2011. They found themselves standing face to face. "I said, 'Mr. Prime Minister, I'm looking into your eyes, and I don't think you have a soul," Biden related to interviewer. "And he looked back at me, and he smiled, and he said, 'We understand one another.' This is who this guy is."
The last line from Biden is the key to the story: He sees Putin's response as a defeat for Putin somehow, a denial of his humanity. Putin, Biden seems to be saying, is an inhuman James Bond villain -- and for some reason, Biden thinks this widespread perception of Putin makes him weak.
But that's Putin's entire goal: He wants the West to believe he has no soul. While the West, like Biden, seeks to demonstrate its bigheartedness to Putin, with "reset" buttons and U.N. resolutions and G8 summits and Olympic Games, Putin seeks to demonstrate that he has no heart. He wants to be seen as cruel and inhuman. He wants everyone to know that he will never bluff and that he will always shoot first.
Obama, Biden and the European Union somehow believe that handwringing and moral proclamations will bring Putin into line. Putin knows strength -- or, at least, the impression of intransigent steeliness -- will bring the West into line. In a game of chicken, the man who openly puts a brick on the accelerator will always win.
Putin's got the brick on the accelerator. He's had quite a hot streak: Georgia, Syria, Iran and now Ukraine. The result will be a far more dangerous world, as potential Russian targets seek nuclear weapons to deter the bear, and as Putin speeds to consolidate his gains. Obama's nuclear-free world, his multipolar United Nations geopolitics, spirals the toilet, thanks to his own utopian wishful thinking.
This is what happens when children play against adults on the world stage. This is what happens when starry-eyed post-Americans are given charge of Western leadership. Putin rolls on, evilly manipulating, grossly murdering. And Obama makes peeved faces as bodies smolder in Ukrainian fields.