Jacob Heilbrunn

Ukraine: Russia's Weakness, Not Obama's

Sarah Palin knows what's wrong with President Obama's approach to Ukraine. In a Facebook post, she said that she had predicted that after Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, Obama's "moral indecision" would prompt Vladimir Putin to tackle Ukraine next: "Yes, I could see this one from Alaska. I’m usually not one to Told-Ya-So, but I did." The Washington Post editorial page also knows what's wrong.

"Mr. Obama," it says, "has been vague about the consequences of continued Russian aggression." An aggression that is taking place, we are told, in "the center of Europe." It suggests that the most forceful measure Obama could take would be to threaten to...well, to threaten to exclude Russia from our banking system.

It's time to get real. Ukraine may be about to get sundered in half. If it does, the reaction will be consternation but little more because 2014, as Klaus-Dieter Frankenberger writes in an astute column, is not 1914. Nor is the Crimea Danzig. And few in Europe were even prepared to sacrifice themselves in May 1939, the year an article appeared in Paris called, "Who Will Die For Danzig?" Contrary to Senator John McCain, who seems to adopt a new country every few months, we aren't all Ukrainians now. And Crimea is not suddenly at the "center of Europe," no matter what the geographers at the Post are now decreeing.

Nor is Obama displaying a pusillanimity dating back to his refusal to intervene in Syria. The blunt fact is that he has few tools at his disposal to compel a change in Russian behavior. Refuse to attend the G-8 summit? America needs Russian cooperation in Aghanistan and elsewhere. Europe needs Russian natural gas.

No, the main constraint on Putin's freedom of movement in Ukraine will be that it's dangerous for him to enmesh himself in a prolonged war in Ukraine. If he seeks to occupy the eastern Ukraine, all bets are off--Ukraine is not Georgia. It has 200,000 troops--ten times, Elke Windisch notes, as many as Tbilisi did. And it is calling up a million reservists. Still, Ukraine would be unlikely to be able to withstand a full-scale Russian invasion. Its tanks, for example, consist mostly of fifty-year-old Soviet era T-64s. The real trouble would come in occupying Ukraine. It would likely become not only a geopolitical but also a military nightmare for Putin, on the order of Iraq or Afghanistan.

Rather than threatening Putin, Obama should continue to seek to offer him an exit strategy--just as Putin offered him one out of Syria. By all accounts, this is what Obama is seeking to do. Such a course won't satisfy the nostalgic cold warriors in Washington, but it would defuse a conflict that should not be allowed to jeopardize the West's relations with Moscow. The truly dangerous course isn't if Obama seeks to treat with Putin. It's if he doesn't. Then the cold war that neoconservatives and liberal hawks have been dreaming about for decades would be reconstituted, with America and Europe facing off against an emboldened and truculent Russia and China.

It is more likely that Russia carves up Ukraine. This will be hailed by Putin as a triumph. In fact, it will serve as further testimony, not to Russia's strength, but rather its weakness. Russia was once an empire that stretched all the way to Berlin. Now the best it can do is to divide Ukraine, thereby creating a permanent wound in its relations with Kiev. The Crimean Peninsula would become a new Kashmir. Putin has embarked upon a course that is probably more dangerous for himself than for the West.