A rigged referendum, threats to support Iran and outright defiance, Putin continues to taunt and confound President Obama. All Putin gets from Obama is empty threats and loud rhetoric – in other words, nothing. The problem for America is that when a politician like Putin who cut his teeth in the ruthless world of the KGB, faces off against a politician like Obama who has mastered politics in attention-deficit disordered, celebrity-obsessed, instant-gratification America, the empty, media-driven politician is going to lose. Obama has never been Commander-in-Chief. He has always been Politician-in-Chief.
If the West is to contain Putin real substantive leadership is necessary. Leadership is willing to risk popularity in the interest of long-term results. As long as Obama continues to act as a popularity-obsessed politician rather than as a leader, Putin will continue to win.
The real story on Putin: He’s looking out for Putin
Self-interest, not geopolitics, rather easily explains everything Putin has done starting with Georgia in 2008. If Putin wanted to recreate the Soviet empire, why not complete the invasion of Georgia and install a puppet government? A partly-occupied, cowed state of Georgia could be achieved at minimal cost.
Harassing the central Asian former Soviet republics to close American bases and constrict American supply routes to Afghanistan was another easy way to exert Russian authority and jab at America. Of course, Putin paid no price for attacking American interests.
Similarly in Syria, Putin got to establish Russia’s bargaining position on the world stage and diminish the United States for the minimal cost of a Security Council veto and a bit of posturing. Depending on what Russia is paid for its arms shipments to Assad, Putin might even be making a profit on Syria.
Ukraine is a very different and more dangerous animal for Putin. The ouster of Yanukovych is an existential threat, not to Russia, but to Putin. Putin likely looks at Ukraine and sees an echo of Russia: a weak economy riven by corruption with a cynical population who views their president as not quite legitimate. Putin and Russia are not in the parlous condition Ukraine was (and is), but considering the parallels a sharp politician like Putin would not take any chances to allow the revolutionary bacillus to spread.
Invading Crimea likely accomplishes two things in Putin’s mind. The first is the use of a foreign adventure to distract the Russian people from the corruption and stagnation at home. The second is that the invasion will intimidate Ukraine’s new leaders – just like the invasion of Georgia did and the pressure routinely applied to the central Asian states. If Putin can accomplish these two things: improve his domestic political situation and intimidate his potential enemies, he will have bolstered himself significantly.
President Obama’s political calculations
So, what is the source of Obama’s weakness? Obama learned how to profit within the media-driven American political system. He knows symbolism, spin, and optics. He has mastered rhetoric and artifice as the path toward the maintenance of power. And broad rhetoric is the least costly part of politics.
Consider his history, starting with his highly-disciplined run for president. When it was profitable to be the get-out-of-Iraq candidate, he was. When it became necessary to defer to the Pentagon on Iraq and Afghanistan, he deferred. When opposing Hillary Clinton’s health care mandate made sense, he opposed it. Once the mandate became politically necessary, he supported it. Every step of the way Obama’s political self-interest dominated his decisions.
Obama mastered the fundamental rule of campaigns: Be as vague about yourself as possible and trap your opponent into specifics. Just when you thought “Hope” and “Change We Can Believe In” were the most vacuous slogans ever, along came “Forward.” “Duck” or “Punt” would have been more accurate.