Why Toughness Wouldn't Have Prevented and Won't Fix Putin's Aggression

Putin's annexation of Crimea caught Washington off guard. The points of consensus seem to be these: The only responses available are un-tough ones, and the only reason Putin did what he did was because Obama wasn't tough enough.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin's annexation of Crimea caught Washington off guard. The points of consensus seem to be these: The only responses available are subtle, not-tough ones, and the only reason Putin did what he did was because people (read: President Obama) weren't tough enough with him.

The 'toughness' problem

When even The New York Times is asking, "Is Mr. Obama tough enough to take on the former K.G.B. colonel in the Kremlin?" it's clear that a narrative has taken hold. The Washington Post's David Ignatius is perhaps the most generous to the president: "It might have been beneficial if President Obama could have dissuaded him from this error," though no possible dissuasion is outlined. No less an international policy expert than NBC's Chuck Todd agrees, as Mediaite reports: "Putin acts, Obama warns, Putin acts, Obama warns. This is a pattern that [Obama] can’t afford to stay in." House Intelligence Committee chair Mike Rogers was on Fox News Sunday issuing one of the highest-level attacks on Obama. As transcribed by The Hill, Rogers said he thought Putin was "running circles around" the United States. "I think Putin is playing chess, and I think we’re playing marbles. It’s not even close."

At the end of last week, multiple reports indicated that Putin was unlikely to take military action against Ukraine, although the possibility had come up in the past. Intelligence officials told The Daily Beast that they didn't expect an invasion; other experts agreed. It seemed so risky, so confrontational.

Putin's motivation

It's now obvious that Putin doesn't fear retaliation from the West. That may be a function of personality: At The New Republic, Julia Ioffe lays out Putin's calculus simply: "Why is Putin doing this? Because he can. That's it, that's all you need to know." BuzzFeed's Miriam Elder makes the not-uncommon argument that "Putin sees the collapse of the Soviet empire as a disaster," and the expansion of Russia's influence as a reversion to form. According to the Times, German chancellor Angela Merkel offered a much more simple analysis. During a phone call with Obama, she reportedly said that "after speaking with Mr. Putin she was not sure he was in touch with reality, people briefed on the call said. 'In another world,' she said."

At Politico, author Ben Judah indirectly responds to an Obama administration critique that Putin had to act militarily because he lacks the "soft power" to otherwise control Ukraine. Judah writes that "Putin’s inner circle no longer fear the European establishment," because they "have seen firsthand how obsequious Western aristocrats and corporate tycoons suddenly turn when their billions come into play." Russia's ruling billionaires carry a lot of weight in the rest of the world.

As Ioffe notes, the 2008 Russian war with Georgia showed that "nobody wants to start a war with nuclear-armed Russia, and rightly so." The Times points out that "[n]o significant political leaders in Washington urged a military response" to the current situation for precisely that reason. It's the flip side to the toughness argument: the United States and NATO can no more threaten Putin militarily now than they could before the annexation. Elder reports that at least one Russian government official referred to Obama's "red line" comment on Syria, as a tacit reminder that Obama's hands were tied. Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker made the same point. "Ever since the administration threw themselves into the arms of Russia in Syria to keep from carrying out what they said they would carry out," the senator said, "I think, [Putin] saw weakness." But war is not an option for many reasons. Among them, as Politico notes, a Pew poll published in December that showed "the most lopsided balance in favor of the U.S. 'minding its own business' in the nearly 50-year history of the measure."

The possible responses

Instead, Corker has developed a package of what the Times calls "a forceful response," in part leveraging those oligarchs' billions. ThinkProgress collected a few others, bringing the list to something like this:

  • Seize Russian funds and impose trade sanctions. One of the most common proposals is to impose sanctions against Russia, although those would take time to have any effect. A freeze on certain business and personal assets, proposed by Secretary of State John Kerry, could have a much more rapid impact.
  • Impose travel restrictions. Russia's wealthy, as Politico notes, have strong ties to the West. Blocking their ability to travel freely could put pressure on Putin from his country's most powerful residents.
  • Suspend Russia from the G-8. Barring Russia from participation in the top-tier economic gathering was pitched by Kerry and others. Last night, the White House issued a "G-7 Leaders Statement," condemning Russia's actions and calling for self-restraint. Obama has already announced that he won't attend an upcoming G-8 summit in Sochi.
  • Expand NATO. Among others, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio suggested that the Republic of Georgia be admitted to NATO, putting a strategic military partner right in Putin's backyard.
  • Improve Europe's missile defense. Putin has long opposed increased NATO missile defenses in Europe, and the Obama White House, as TP's Hayes Brown notes had dialed them back.
  • Let him keep Crimea. It's highly unlikely that Obama would take this Chamberlinesque advice.

While all of those could have the desired effect of making Putin uncomfortable, none is the sort of tough-guy, return-of-the-Cold-War move that seems to have inspired so much of the rhetoric around the current situation. Nor is the current situation in Ukraine over. At The New Yorker, David Remnick is pessimistic about the near-term.

Putin’s reaction exceeded our worst expectations. These next days and weeks in Ukraine are bound to be frightening, and worse. There is not only the threat of widening Russian military force. The new Ukrainian leadership is worse than weak. It is unstable.

Being "tough" wouldn't have prevented this moment and doesn't seem to be the way out of it either. The slow process of international relations may be a tough sell in the Twitter era, but it's the best we can expect.

Correction: Due to a misreading of a quote, this article originally indicated that former ambassador to Ukraine, Steven Pifer, advocated the last policy above. He does not.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.