During their presidential debate in October, 2012 President Barack Obama took Governor Mitt Romney to task for his antiquated view of foreign policy: “Gov. Romney, I’m glad that you recognize that al Qaeda is a threat because a few months ago when you were asked what’s the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia. The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years,” The president would go on to conclude “I know you haven’t been in a position to actually execute foreign policy, but every time you’ve offered an opinion, you’ve been wrong.” Really?
So as Russian tanks and troops seize control of military bases in Crimea and Moscow clearly indicates it is prepared to annex Crimea, many in the Administration appear to be grappling with the big foreign policy questions of the day: What is Russian strongman Vladimir Putin up to? What is motivating his latest belligerence and invasion of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea? Where can we find common ground to solve this crisis?
Have they forgotten that Putin is still very much the devious KGB secret police operative he was during the not-so-distant days of the old Soviet Union?
In fact, Putin has openly lamented the collapse of the Soviet Communist Empire noting “Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and co-patriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself.” That was in 2005. So the ground has been laid for some time for what we are seeing now from the Russian President.
Putin is the last of the Cold War warriors. Putin is not doing what we want him to do, but he is doing precisely what we should expect him to do. Failing to listen to what he says and watch what actions he takes does not detract from the fact that he is communicating clearly to us about his intentions. It is not hard to understand his mindset, although President Barack Obama and his secretary of state have failed to comprehend it.
When President Obama draws foreign policy “red lines” that aren’t enforced, not only does it call into question the commitment of the United States to stand by its word, it weakens the resolve of our Allies to stand with the president when it matters. Other considerations (oil and gas) begin to trump the sovereignty of nations and the desires of a free people.
Putin knows this; and he is also acutely aware of the strategic importance of Crimea and so, with the arrogance of an old Soviet dictator, he orders his military to seize Crimea—a peninsula that is a quasi-independent part of the country of Ukraine. Crimea, with a majority Russian population, juts into the Black Sea and affords Putin access to the Mediterranean Sea. Having access to a warm water port has long been an existential desire of Russia.
Ukraine is also critical to Russian interest because it is a convenient lynchpin to Europe. Natural gas pipelines that run from Central Asia to Europe via Ukraine are a means of control and coercion for Putin. He has cut off the supply of gas previously and he is willing to do it again. Consequently, the overthrow of the pro-Putin Ukrainian government last month raised alarm bells inside the Kremlin and now conveniently affords the Russian president the best opportunity since the Soviet collapse to recover control over this strategic region.
A successful annexation of Crimea—whether through a fraudulent referendum or otherwise—will have a coercive impact on all of the former Soviet satellites, perhaps making them think twice before doing something that could displease Moscow without Putin having to deploy a single soldier. What kind of message does Obama’s reactions in Syria and Crimea send to allies like Australia, who are counting on his commitment for a re-balance of American military focus to the Asia-Pacific region as a tacit means of confronting a China with growing expeditionary interests?