Several news outlets reported large Russians troop movements along the Ukraine border. It appears Russian President Vladimir Putin is not satisfied with annexing the Crimea. Europe and the United States have been impotent in the face of Russian aggression. Europe has been reticent to use power or stand up to dictators in recent years. On the other hand, America’s reaction has been out of character in the postwar world. Traditionally, American presidents have stood up to the Russian (Soviet) aggression. The Russians respect power and calculate accordingly. Whenever presidents have been resolute, the Russians have backed down.
American policy makers recognized the postwar Soviet threat rather early. Harry Truman quickly learned he could not trust Josef Stalin. The Allied powers split Germany, and its capitol, into occupation zones in 1945. Berlin stood in the middle of the Soviet occupation zone, but Stalin could not touch half the city. As a result, he decided to starve Berliners into the Communist camp. He closed western approaches to the city forcing the Allies to either abandon the city or develop a new method of resupply. President Truman settled on an airlift. From June 24, 1948-May 12, 1949, Allied planes dropped food and supplies into the blockaded city. Eventually, Stalin realized he lost and reopened Berlin to the west.
America instituted the next major blockade in 1962. The Kennedy Administration caught the Soviets building nuclear weapons sites on Cuba. Kennedy recognized the threat nuclear missiles in Fidel Castro’s hands represented. His military and political advisers provided many options, including invasion. Kennedy decided an invasion meant World War III, so he settled on quarantine. The American navy blockaded Cuba so Russian missile parts could not reach Castro. The world teetered toward nuclear war, but the Soviet Premier, Nikita Khrushchev backed down. The Soviets dismantled their facilities on the island. Later, the Americans removed outdated missiles from Turkey.
The world faced nuclear annihilation again a decade later. The Soviets threatened to intervene on the Arab side in the Yom Kippur War. Several Arab nations launched a surprise attack on Israel with Soviet support. They hoped to eliminate the Jewish state from the map. The U.S. quickly resupplied Israel, stabilized the besieged nation, and saved it from extinction. Once the Arab war effort faltered in the face of the Israeli military response, the Russians considered entering the conflict. At this point, President Richard Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger put the U.S. on nuclear alert and warned the Soviets against intervention. Moscow understood the message clearly and backed off. Israel survived to defeat the Arab coalition, Dr. Kissinger brokered a peace deal, and the Russians lost credibility in the region. They would not regain a foothold in the Middle East again until Vladimir Putin’s reign.
Ronald Reagan learned the lessons of the Yom Kippur conflict. In 1980, he won a major electoral victory over President Jimmy Carter. Meanwhile, Solidarity formed in Gdansk, Poland under Lech Walesa. As the first non-communist trade union in the Eastern Bloc, the Polish Solidarity movement represented a major threat. The Polish government decided to declare martial law to bring Walesa and Solidarity to heel. At the same time, the Soviets threatened to invade Poland. President Reagan promised to protect Poland if the Soviets attacked. The Russians backed down and tried to control events through their Polish puppets. Later, they attempted to murder the first Polish Pope, John Paul II. Eventually, Polish communism collapsed under the weight of Solidarity and aid from the U.S. and Vatican.
Truman, Kennedy, Nixon, and Reagan stood up to the Russian bully. When confronted, the Russians backed off. Conversely, when the U.S. has shown presidential weakness, or disinterest, the Russians have done as they pleased. Dwight Eisenhower’s attention to the Suez Crisis provided cover for a Russian crackdown on pro-democracy Hungarians in 1956. President Carter’s trial balloon for “planned inferiority” designed to cut the military to ease tensions combined with the Iran Hostage Crisis and ailing American economy to allow the Russians into Afghanistan. Carter responded by boycotting the Olympics and a grain embargo. Even worse, President Barack Obama’s policies have emboldened Putin. He refused to send missile defense to Eastern Europe, allowed Syrian chemical weapons attacks to go unpunished despite repeated warnings, and promised Putin he would be more flexible in other arms negotiations once re-elected. In the face of the Crimean disaster, Obama has been as weak as any American president in history. The Russians publicly laughed at Obama's efforts. Obama looks like James Buchanan as the South left the Union in 1860-61 or Neville Chamberlain as Hitler swallowed Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland.
Historically, when America stood up to the Russians, Moscow backtracked. Currently, the Ukraine and perhaps other former members of the Eastern bloc face the real threat of Russian invasion. The western powers seem unwilling or unable to assist. They have not learned from history. As a result, Putin has a free hand to do as he wishes. Luckily, Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev did not have the same opportunity. Otherwise, the Soviets might have conquered Western Europe and the Middle East.