One thing about Vladimir Putin: He does not waste time.
When he wants to gobble a territory for Russia, he does not spend much time stalking it. He just gobbles it.
Consider the dizzying sequence of events this week: Sunday, Crimea votes for independence from Ukraine (more than 95 percent voted in favor of secession — a stunning Soviet-era total); Monday, Putin recognizes Crimea’s independence; Tuesday, he signs a treaty making it part of Russia; and Thursday, the lower house of the Russian parliament takes the procedural step of voting to admit Crimea into the Russian Federation.
The shirtless one will get his way on Crimea, as it’s hard to see what the United States and Europe can do to reverse the facts on the ground. Russian soldiers occupied the peninsula, and Sunday’s referendum was a foregone conclusion, given Crimea’s ethnic makeup. Besides, there’s nothing like having soldiers with rifles around to insure a free and fair election.
There is a case to be made for the “Russian-ness” of Crimea, and I have made it. But there is a stronger case against annexing territory by force, one supported by liberals and conservatives in this country. In Congress, members from both parties have been outspoken in denouncing Russian aggression and calling for punitive action.
On the other hand, the president’s options — never very robust in this instance — are constrained by public reluctance to “get too involved” in Ukrainian affairs. A Pew Research Center poll, taken in early March, before annexation, showed 56 percent of Americans opposed to forceful opposition to Moscow, with 29 percent in favor of taking “a firm stand against Russian actions.” Democrats, Republicans, and Independents broke about evenly in the survey.
Much of this reflects, no doubt, a backlash against the Bush-era invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and their neoconservative allies promised a quick victory in both instances, with few casualties and minimal U.S. involvement. Of course, neither turned out that way, and in the case of Iraq, at least, the Bush administration lied about the casus belli. Only a neoconservative like William Kristol can argue, “A war-weary public can be awakened and rallied.”
Kristol, who never saw a foreign involvement he didn't like, may hanker for the good-ol’ days of the Bushies, but few others do, and for good reason.
There are no good military options available to President Obama to overturn Russian aggression. And Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas — and other forms of trade — make even tough sanctions against Moscow a hard sell.
Still, something must be done, and Thursday the president levied “additional costs” against Putin’s closest allies and a Russian bank. He signed an executive order giving him “the authority to impose sanctions not just on individuals but on key sectors of the Russian economy.” Sanctions may be placed on financial services and energy, metals, and mining concerns in Russia.
In a tit-for-tat reminiscent of the Cold War, Moscow retaliated against nine U.S. officials, including top administration aids and members of Congress, banning them from traveling to Russia.
Obama meets with European and Asian leaders next week to discuss further steps to take against Moscow.
Reversing Putin’s land grab may be unlikely, but the Russian government must pay a price for its folly. Assurances must also be given, and are being given, to NATO members on Russia’s periphery, as well as to Ukraine, that further Russian aggression will be repelled forcefully.
It’s time to stand up to the bully.