The U. S., Russia and Ukraine: Recall the Tortoise and the Hare?

What is happening in Ukraine makes for very tricky, fast moving business and President Obama is right to move carefully even if his public statements seem weak and indecisive.  And yes, even with the Russians publicly stating they will send troops to the Crimean region right after Obama statements about severe consequences if they do so.   Russia already has gained control of Crimea through what one commentator has called a “stealth invasion” as can be inferred from daily news reports.   Linked here is a brief timeline indicating how rapidly events have unfolded over the past 11 days.

Former Ukrainian President Yanukovych was brought down 11 days ago because he nixed an already approved deal with the European union because of economic pressure from Russia, which in turn spurred the protests which prompted the president’s removal and his fleeing east.  Eastern Ukraine has much stronger ties to Russia than found in the capital of Kiev and parts west.  The Crimea region particularly so.   The population is about 60% Russian ethnic background (a majority but not really “most” of the people as I sometimes hear from TV commentators).  Also, the region was actually part of Russia until transferred to Ukraine way back in 1954, a which didn’t mean much as long as the Soviet Union remained in tact.   In addition there are some 25,000 Russians inhabiting a Russian naval base there, which is of great importance to Russia. 

This has made it easy for a “stealth invasion” to occur before Russia got around to declaring they would send in troops to protect its Russian relatives.  They are already well protected.  So, Putin has already won the first leg of this race, which of course the likes of Senator McCain and fellow constant critic columnist Charles Krauthammer will continue to lambaste Obama for, perhaps even drawing a false analogy to Hitler and Munich some time soon.

Here are two of my biases:  John McCain’s first answer to any foreign problem is to get tougher while never complimenting Obama for anything, having never gotten over over losing the presidential race, a position he thought was rightfully his.  Krauthamer loves calling the Obama foreign policy clueless implying that he, General Krauthammer would know just how to react to the burgeoning number of international crises though seldom offering suggestions sufficient to reveal his own cluefullness.   Fortunately, in a recent editorial the wise one actually made a concrete suggestion for a change, that a U. S. fleet should immediately be dispatched to the Black Sea to show we really mean business this time around.   I bet U. S. admirals love that idea.

Leaving aside the basic military concern about placing one of our fleets in what is basically a huge lake with only one narrow entrance/exit….  and the likelihood of ratcheting up tensions with unclear consequences…..What would the fleet do once there?   How would we act tough?  What would cause us to bomb someone or shoot someone down? And if we did, is war with Russia an option?   Oh, we could win a war with Russia.  That is one of our big problems these days.  We have a hugely sophisticated and expensive military that could beat any one in a war, but simply winning wars seldom win the peace anymore.  Just what did winning in Iraq get us? For one, an Iran made stronger as Iraq, its ongoing enemy, disappeared as a counter balance (yes, as evil as Sadam was, he had his uses).  Then there is the “new Iraq”, hardly a friend and experiencing ongoing upheaval which makes it one more source of instability in the region .  And not even any special oil deals.

Let’s punish Putin for this latest move, but slowly like a boa constrictor.  The Obama team can be criticized for being too optimistic about “normalcy” with Russia given Putin being Putin (or “naive” as conservative critics like to put it), but to act like we are back on cold war footing is silly.  We are not about to rattle nuclear weapons at each other, and we do have some mutual interests.  The trick is to craft a policy that has some of the good cop bad cop chemistry found in policing.   Frankly, the Obama administration hasn’t done a great job of this, but getting our relationships with Russia just right is no easy thing to achieve and those eager to act more aggressively would likely muck things up more, i. e. Admiral Krauthammer.

Finally,  let’s think about this:  Time is on our side.  While Putin is parading around for now, Russia is heading towards another economic collapse, which is what led to revolution and the break up of the Soviet Union.   Oil and gas (and maybe something else I can’t recall at the moment) are Russia’s only real exports and the price of both are declining.  This is a result  of new sources being discovered in North America and elsewhere and a lessening world energy demand from developing countries like China, whose growth is slowing. Besides that, only big gamblers want to invest in Russia these days, given the Russian government’s corrupt incursions into the economy.  Russia is not a hot spot for world investment except for big risk takers.

The critics have all sorts of advice for the president in terms of sanctions on Russia, many of them I imagine the government is considering, but can take time to develop.  If military involvement was one of them, time would be of the essence, but it is not.  Sure, Putin continues his string of bows and bragging rights, but his taking such decisive steps in Ukraine may work out in our favor.   This latest power grab will likely make it easier for Obama to rally support for harsher economic reprisals of Russia over time.   And, that could be more powerful than one might expect given that nation’s inherent economic problems.

In any case.  Getting off to a fast start doesn’t necessarily win the race.   Remember the tortoise and the hare?