While we wring our hands over whether we have any options in preventing Crimea from being slowly -- but almost surely -- sucked into the Russian sphere of influence for good, the fact is that the Kremlin clearly thought it could get away with it.
There’s no doubt that Russian President Vladimir Putin long ago sized up President Obama, including his world view, his interest in international affairs and his style of foreign policy--and from that made an assessment.
It’s also fair to say that the Kremlin probably concluded from this ongoing internal estimate of the White House over the past five years that they could dismember Crimea from Ukraine--practically unopposed.
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Unfortunately, so far Moscow has been right.
Of course, in fairness, Putin’s decision did come with some degree of hesitation about Obama’s reaction as evidenced by Russia’s calculated “creeping” consumption of Crimea over the last week and a half.
For example, instead of deploying a few groups of insignia-less, uniformed (likely) Russian soldiers, Putin could have seized Crimea with 100,000 Russian troops, replete with tanks and fighter aircraft.
But the lack of a rapid, stern response from the United States (and the West) convinced the Kremlin that their judgments about the White House were spot on and that they could proceed with “liberating” Crimea from Ukraine.
Now what would make Putin believe that he could pull this Crimea caper off?
Perhaps it was the notion of a “reset” in relations that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov back in 2009, based on the belief that troubled ties were a legacy of the Bush administration.
Or perchance it was when that same year President Obama canceled the missile defense system of interceptors and radars (aimed at Iran’s nuclear program) that was planned for Poland and the Czech Republic due to Russian objections.
Then again, maybe, it was when President Obama whispered in then-Russian president Dmitri Medvedev’s ear in 2012 that after that year’s U.S. elections he would have even more flexibility on America’s missile defense architecture.
Of course, there was also the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) which while reducing America’s nuclear arsenal actually allowed Russia to increase theirs under the terms of the agreement.
Believe me: All of these fawning U.S. concessions weren’t lost on the Kremlin.
Beyond our efforts to “reset” the relationship, the Kremlin & Co. also sees how the White House left Iraq and is leaving Afghanistan—not to mention how our military vitality is diminishing.
If current Team Obama Pentagon plans proceed, we’ll soon have the smallest navy since World War I, the smallest army since World War II, and the smallest air force ever—while Russia is involved in a military build-up.
The point here is that while high-minded ideas (e.g., international law) are important to the conduct of foreign policy, so is raw national power. Indeed, it’s often been said that the only thing Russia really respects is the kulak—or “fist.”
It would be hard to argue that American strength wasn’t critical to preventing Russian expansionism during the Cold War, especially into Western Europe.
Unfortunately, when Moscow gazes West it sees weakness and irresoluteness, from the shaky transatlantic relationship to our plummeting defense budgets to a dearth of strong international leadership.
The fact is that if that situation doesn’t change, it could be a lot more than Crimea that could be lost.
Peter Brookes is Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs at the Heritage Foundation and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific affairs. He is a Navy veteran. Follow him on Twitter@Brookes_Peter.