Against mounting evidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin supplied the SA11 missile system that shot Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 out of the skies, the world is drawing inevitable comparisons between the former KGB operative in Moscow and his counterpart, the ex-community organizer in the Oval Office in Washington. The contrast is anything but reassuring to a world in turmoil.
Russia provided both the SA11 missiles and the training or the personnel to deploy them. The blood on Putin’s hands is that of 298 innocent people (including 80 children) whose lives were snuffed out while traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lampur.
Yet the community organizer’s initial response was so wooden, so lacking in moral outrage, as to make it appear that the mass murder of 298 innocents was, to Obama anyway, no cause for alarm.
There is a clear moral divide in world affairs, but the only one who doesn’t seem to realize it is President Obama.
Even Vice President Joe Biden, in a New Yorker interview published Monday, told of a meeting he had with Putin during a visit to the Kremlin in 2011.
“I said, ‘Mr. Prime Minister, I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul,” Biden recalled, in a play on the famous observation of former President George W. Bush about the Russian.
“He looked back at me, and he smiled, and he said, ‘We understand one another.’” Biden recalled. “This is who this guy is!”
I don’t often agree with him, but Biden’s assessment of Putin was spot on. Putin lacks a moral compass: his mindset is a laser-like focus on national assertiveness.
The country he commands has a backward economy that relies primarily on oil and gas for hard currency. Longevity is decreasing while alcoholism is on the rise. All that Russia has are sophisticated weapons that Putin has given to Ukrainian separatists and which have now been used to terrorize airline passengers worldwide.
Putin is an accessory to the cold-blooded murders of 298 people, but he has so far been able to act with impunity because our president does not have a genuine understanding of his adversary.
While President Obama recognizes the danger of aggression, he seems to view it as an abstraction, unrelated to the conduct of specific actors. To him, the attack on the embassy in Benghazi was tragic, but he seemed never able to tie those events to al Qaeda. He has taken a similar lawyerly tack in the case of Flight 17.
On the other side of the globe, Putin views Obama’s equivocation as a weakness to be exploited. His education in world affairs developed over a career as a KGB operative. For him, there is only one goal on the global front: reversing history by restoring Russia to its pre-Cold War power.
Obama began his presidency with hopes for a “reset” in our relations with Russia, which he claimed had deteriorated during the Bush years.
Some “reset.” By the time he took office, Obama had already witnessed the murderer from Putin’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, his suppression of the press and elimination of domestic critics, his cozy alliances with Syria and Iran and his bullying of Ukraine using oil and gas as weapons.
Yet the President’s childlike naiveté continued unaffected when, in March of 2012, he was caught on an open microphone asking then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to intervene with Putin to give him “space” so he could have the “flexibility,” after “my last election,” to settle issues like missile defense more to Putin’s liking.
It is this posture, as much as anything else that explains Putin’s supplying of weapons to the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine.
When Putin extended his grip with the land grab of Crimea, Obama squirmed -- but that’s about all he did. Diplomatic impediments were futile because Putin knew he had been given a free ride. The American president even refused Ukraine’s entreaties for heavy weapons.
Putin has been shameless in the days following the massacre, showing hypocrisy on an Orwellian scale. With a straight face he maintained, “the government over whose territory this happened bears the responsibility for this terrible tragedy.” On one hand, he subverts the authority of a sovereign neighbor, while on another, he holds it responsible for the destruction of Flight 17, albeit using weapons he provided and personnel he supplied or trained.
Is this mass murder over Ukrainian skies a justification for war -- a casus belli? Putin and the rest of the world can see clearly that the United States is not prepared to go to war over this massacre, nor is even a United Nations censure in the works, thanks to Russia’s veto in the Security Council.
Putin knows what he wants, and so too does Obama -- but Putin is an aggressor intent on reclaiming the former Soviet Union, while Obama is interested in reshaping U.S. foreign policy predicated on American withdrawal from most deployments abroad.
The question that emerges from this unlikely pairing of adversaries is how a nation in retreat can confine a country on an imperial mission.