Obama Tries to Put Putin in His Place — Again

But the president’s words fall short when viewed against recent history.

Oxfam volunteers wearing caricature heads depicting (L-R) Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, British Prime Minister David Cameron, US President Barack Obama and Russia's President Vladimir Putin pose in golf clothing as part of their End Hunger campaign photocall on June 18, 2013 in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland.
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Major Garrett
March 25, 2014, 5:31 p.m.

THE HAG­UE, NETH­ER­LANDS — Mo­ments after de­flect­ing a ques­tion about his di­min­ished in­flu­ence on the world stage, Pres­id­ent Obama de­scribed Rus­sia as a “re­gion­al power” op­er­at­ing in Crimea out of weak­ness, not strength.

Not­ing Rus­sia’s long-stand­ing in­flu­ence in all of Ukraine, Obama said Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin’s il­leg­al an­nex­a­tion of Crimea “in­dic­ates less in­flu­ence, not more.”

I guess that’s why Ukraine’s de­fense min­is­ter resigned and Ukrain­i­an troops bugged out of Crimea, leav­ing it to Rus­si­an forces. This is the only “off ramp“ that mat­ters in Crimea. Ukraine and its rhet­or­ic­ally flor­id West­ern al­lies took it. Not Putin.

Even as the White House in­sists Crimea is not “lost” (Putin can find it without satel­lite im­agery, after all), the grudging lan­guage of con­ces­sion seeps from every cor­ridor of Ukrain­i­an talks here.

“It’s not a done deal in the sense that the in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity by and large isn’t re­cog­niz­ing the an­nex­a­tion of Crimea,” Obama said, be­fore ac­know­ledging the “facts on the ground” favored Rus­sia. “It would be dis­hon­est to say there is a simple solu­tion to resolv­ing what has already taken place in Crimea.”

Obama and European lead­ers are rattled and re­sent­ful, thun­der­struck that the wispy bonds of in­ter­na­tion­al “norms” could be so eas­ily shred­ded. Fear­ful of the pre­ced­ent they ap­pear in­cap­able of re­vers­ing, and des­per­ate to lim­it Putin’s am­bi­tions to Crimea, the G-7 na­tions have ef­fect­ively con­ceded Crimea. They threatened “sec­tor­al sanc­tions” if Putin fur­ther bull­dozed in­ter­na­tion­al law by gob­bling up more of Ukraine or plow­ing in­to Mol­dova. Weak or strong, Putin en­forces the new Crimean status quo. All he’s lost is Rus­sia’s G-8 mem­ber­ship pin and de­coder ring.

The re­lent­less fo­cus on Putin’s land grab and the West’s gradu­al­ist eco­nom­ic re­sponse misses some rel­ev­ant his­tory. Some ana­lysts con­tend the seeds were first planted when Rus­sia at­tacked Geor­gia in 2008 and the West — led by a war-de­pleted, lame-duck George W. Bush — didn’t even im­pose low-level sanc­tions and visa bans in play now. That signaled ac­qui­es­cence to ag­gres­sion and prob­ably whetted Putin’s ap­pet­ite.

But I would ar­gue Putin drew more con­clu­sions about the West’s take on his un­dis­guised ter­rit­ori­al am­bi­tions in 2010. That’s when France agreed “in prin­ciple” to sell Rus­sia four Mis­tral class am­phi­bi­ous land­ing ships. The $1.7 bil­lion arms deal, the first between Europe and Rus­sia since 1945, prom­ised Rus­sia four ves­sels that would re­vive its aging Black Sea fleet and trans­form its abil­ity to pro­ject power there and the Balt­ics. The ves­sels are like small air­craft car­ri­ers, able to move 16 heli­copters, four land­ing barges, 70 vehicles (in­clud­ing ar­mored tanks), and a bat­talion of sol­diers. It’s worth not­ing that when this sale was first hatched, Rus­sia’s new mil­it­ary doc­trine iden­ti­fied NATO as Rus­sia’s top stra­tegic threat.

The deal was form­al­ized in 2011. Com­ments from the in­ter­ested parties are, well, il­lu­min­at­ing.

First, then-French Pres­id­ent Nic­olas Sarkozy: “The Cold War is fin­ished. We have to con­sider Rus­sia a friend and have to work with her to build a vast area of se­cur­ity and prosper­ity to­geth­er.”

Then Putin: “I can as­sure you that if we pur­chase this arm­a­ment we will use it wherever deemed ne­ces­sary.”

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, through then-De­fense Sec­ret­ary Robert Gates, lodged a for­mu­laic protest. But NATO didn’t make a fuss, and a new world or­der of European arms sales to Rus­sia — even in light of Putin’s mil­it­ar­ism in Geor­gia — was born. More Europe-Rus­si­an arms deals fol­lowed. James Co­r­um, a well-traveled Amer­ic­an mil­it­ary his­tor­i­an, com­pared the arms deal to European at­tempts to ap­pease Ad­olf Hitler from 1937 to 1939, ig­nor­ing men­ace at the con­tin­ent’s per­il.

Co­r­um wrote: “Yet, as ap­pallingly in­com­pet­ent as the West­ern lead­ers such as [Bri­tain’s Neville] Cham­ber­lain and [France’s Ed­ou­ard] Daladi­er were when con­fron­ted with a threat to demo­crat­ic na­tions — at least they were not so stu­pid as to sell Nazi Ger­many their latest weapons in or­der to guar­an­tee Ger­man suc­cess.”

Even after Putin moved in­to Crimea, France’s first in­clin­a­tion was to up­hold the Mis­tral deal, call­ing any move to kill it an “ex­treme meas­ure“ best avoided. De­fense Min­is­ter Jean-Yves Le Dri­an im­plaus­ibly de­scribed the war­ships as little more than freight­ers. “We will de­liv­er ci­vil­ian hulls. The cli­ent can then arm the two ships. We will de­liv­er, un­der the signed con­tract, a pack­age which is un­armed.”

How com­fort­ing this must have been to Ukraine’s trans­ition­al gov­ern­ment and nervous lead­ers in the Balt­ics and Mol­dova. By the way, the first French-made ves­sel, the Vla­divos­tok, is already un­der­go­ing sea tri­als. The second ship, ap­pro­pri­ately named the Sevastopol, is due for de­liv­ery at the end of 2015. The Mis­tral deal could be re­voked if — and only if — Rus­sia flexes more mil­it­ary muscle in the re­gion. So, if Rus­sia only vi­ol­ates in­ter­na­tion­al law in Crimea it can keep its con­tract for four am­phi­bi­ous ves­sels, thereby shift­ing nav­al power through the re­gion in its fa­vor for dec­ades. Talk about play­ing the long game.

Obama’s curdled dis­dain for Putin not­with­stand­ing, this doesn’t sound like a po­s­i­tion of weak­ness or di­min­ished in­flu­ence. But it does sound like the West is now sud­denly un­com­fort­able with the cold real­it­ies spawned by the arms deals it wrought.

The au­thor is Na­tion­al Journ­al cor­res­pond­ent-at-large and chief White House cor­res­pond­ent for CBS News. He is also a dis­tin­guished fel­low at the George Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity School of Me­dia and Pub­lic Af­fairs.


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