While Russian President Vladimir Putin foments unrest in Ukraine as a potential guise to plunder more territory, President Obama unleashes Captain Obvious and Secretary Shuttle.
Captain Obvious is White House press secretary Jay Carney, the former Moscow bureau chief for Time magazine who told reporters Monday, "If Russia moves into Eastern Ukraine, either overtly or covertly, this would be a very serious escalation."
No kidding. Like the time Putin moved into Crimea over White House objections – overtly, covertly and permanently? Thrusting his lower lip into a serious-face pout, Carney solemnly revealed nothing we didn't already know. "What's clear is that this is a result of increased Russian pressure on Ukraine," he said, "and we see it in the troops that have massed on the border."
What's also clear: Russian interests are behind uprisings and building takeovers in Donetsk and Kharkiv, an ominous echo of Putin's pretext for seizing Crimea this year and Georgia in 2008. "There is strong evidence suggesting some of these demonstrators were paid," Carney said.
Don't fret. Secretary of State John Kerry set aside his feckless effort to keep Israelis and Palestinians at the negotiating table to call Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Expressing "strong concern" about "escalatory steps" by the Russians, Kerry convinced Lavrov to participate in talks with U.S., Ukranian and European Union officials in the next 10 days.
This is the same Lavrov who teased Kerry with talks while Russian troops seized Crimea.
Whither Obama? While it's true that his options for dealing with a power-hungry Cold Warrior are limited, the president of the United States isn't exactly an impotent bystander. Obama must realize that the events of the last two days threaten to re-ignite the crisis. Why not address them? Why not take action, rather than threaten it through his tow-headed spokesman?
Here are a few things Obama could do:
- Be more engaged. Address the crisis personally and firmly at every pivot point. There are times when "leading from behind" is prudent. This is no such time. And Putin is not the sort of leader impressed by finesse.
- Send the Secretary of Defense or chairman of the Joint Chiefs to the Baltics to plan joint military exercises. Same for Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, the four NATO countries bordering Ukraine.
- Threaten (and be prepared to carry out the threat) to urgently supply Kiev with weapons should Russia invade beyond Crimea. Make a show of those preparations.
- Order the Energy Department to hasten approval for liquefied natural gas facilities. This won't immediately wean Europe from Russian gas, but if announced with conviction, it might convince Putin that invading Ukraine would be a long-term mistake.
- Use whatever personal relations he's developed among European leaders (unfortunately, relationship-building is not one of Obama's strengths) to stiffen sanctions against Russia. Ultimately, the only thing short of war that is sure to get Putin's attention is a sanctions regime like the one that crippled Iran's economy.
Carney has every right to argue that this crisis is Putin's fault, not Obama's, and that there are no easy choices, only dangerous ones. Thanks you, Captain Obvious. That's why we've got a commander-in-chief.
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