Has Barack Obama been outfoxed in maneuvers about territory that the world should not worry about?
Or is something greater at stake?
On the one hand, Ukraine and Crimea are within what the world might recognize as the Russian sphere of influence. Anyone claiming that either the Ukraine or Crimea would be a loss to western civilization is not hearing what I am hearing about them.
The Ukraine has withdrawn its military forces from the Crimea, which suggests its acceptance of Russian dominance.
Whether Russia should have taken the Crimea the way it did is an open question. It may gain Vladimir Putin an award for oneupsmanship, or light a more serious warning light.
There are reports of Russian troops assembling for an exercise north of the Crimea, alongside the eastern border of the Ukraine.
Should Putin follow up the Crimea with a similarly engineered absorption of other parts of Ukraine, the warning will turn from yellow to red. Poland and the Baltic states have already begun serious worrying. The US and NATO might become more focused in planning their next steps, to be employed if Russia moves further.
Putin is not Hitler, but on all our minds should be the memory of Hitler telling Chamberlain that all would be well after Germany's absorption of the Sudetenland.
Optimists hope that Russia will be content with dominance over the Ukraine and other areas of Eastern Europe, short of returning additional territory to what it was under the Soviet Union.
What to do now or in the event that Russia begins to maneuver in the direction of additional acquisitions?
It's not an easy question.
We can applaud Barack Obama's post-George W. Bush posture of modesty in foreign relations, without being happy about Obama's combination of bluster and surrender that appears to be his way of dealing with Syria, Iran, and the Ukraine, along with the lack of realism in Kerry's efforts with respect to Palestine.
Among the problems is the weakness of threatened sanctions.
What has been imposed to date border on the ridiculous.
What can be increased in severity would come against what Russia can do by way of retaliation. Putin has threatened a lack of cooperation on Syria and Iran. Skeptics would be right in asking how much cooperation has he provided to date on those issues. He covered for Syria on the issue of chemical weapons, and has continued to provide nuclear equipment and technology to Iran.
Not too far in the background is the control of Russia over most of Western Europe's supply of gas.
David Cameron dismisses Russian threats of counter-sanctions by saying that Russia depends more on Europe than Europe on Russia.
That might be true, but the Europeans might also be in for some cold winters before they could turn to other sources of fuel for their heating, electricity, and industry.
Americans might want the world to go away and leave them alone, but that is not likely to happen. It would not be easy to backtrack from the extensive economic, political, and military commitments made since the 1940s. South Korea is arguably an American responsibility, despite the flubbing about North Korea's nuclear program. The war on terror will not subside anytime soon, especially with Jihadists brazened by their opportunities in Syria, Iraq still reeling from its American liberation, Afghanistan, parts of Pakistan and large areas of Africa no better than before the onset of American involvements. The fiasco of the Malayian airliner has planners worrying about the prospect of a crazy pilot, and what that will mean for the upgrading of security.
Also on the agenda is the war on drugs, not demonstrably becoming successful anytime soon, and involving its own set of unappetizing commitments in Mexico and further south.
It never was easy managing the world or even managing the complex American society that has always been on the verge of distrusting its own government. Health care and gun control remain the major indicators of American exceptionalism with respect to other western democracies. Immigration, social inequalities, and the problems of crime, education, and public health associated with the substantial underclass are never far from Washington's agenda.
Dealing with a nascently aggressive Russia--if that is what it is--requires the utmost in intelligence of the kind that knows what is likely to happen among the Russian leadership, as well as skill in knowing one's own resources (economic, military, and political), the willingness to cooperate of countries claiming to be allies, and the responses of those likely to be hostile.
Also important in international politics is carefully measured verbiage. Bombast not followed up sends a confusing message. While there are occasions when ambiguity is appropriate, the Obama record on Syria, Iran, so far on Ukraine, and Palestine suggests that he has tilted too far away from clarity.
A larger view means dealing with the threats of Iran and North Korea as well as Russia, and all of it without foolish steps that make things worse.
Are Barack Obama, his governmental colleagues and their aides up to the tasks of leadership, while also dealing with their pressing domestic issues?
Wisdom suggests that we put that question on the table, and hope for the best.
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