Barack Obama has proved again to be the veritable anti-Reagan of American politics. Contrast President Reagan’s response after Soviet fighter aircraft downed a Korean civilian airliner on September 1, 1983 with Obama’s reaction after pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine downed Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, killing all 298 aboard.
Reagan minced no words after the Soviets shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007, calling the attack a “massacre … against 269 innocent men, women and children,” “an atrocity,” and “a crime against humanity.” He blasted Soviet leaders for refusing to “tell the truth … despite the savagery of their crime.” Reagan linked the Soviet attack to the broader threat posed by the Soviet Union. In a swift and solemn address to the nation, he quoted Senator Henry M. Jackson (D-WA), “a wise and revered statesmen who understood the Soviets as well as any American in history,” on the grave danger that would ensue should America fail to maintain a “strong deterrent.”
Reagan did not stop at strong words. He imposed stiff sanctions, continued the largest peacetime military buildup in American history, and pursued a Strategic Defense Initiative that brought a recalcitrant Soviet Union to the bargaining table and ultimately to its knees — all while deftly employing public diplomacy to condemn the evil essence of the Soviet regime. Reagan qualified his rhetoric and actions with “no pale pastels.”
Obama looks vacillating and ineffective by comparison. For five years, the administration has pursued a feckless “reset” with Russia — ignoring massive evidence that an authoritarian Putin strives to resurrect the old Soviet Empire across East Central Europe, starting with the Ukraine. Neither Obama’s conciliation of Putin before the Ukrainian crisis that began in August 2013, nor the weak sanctions he has imposed after Russia seized Crimea will suffice to convince Putin to desist. The president’s most recent sanctions, announced just one day before the downing of Flight MH17, are more serious but still fall far short of the comprehensive restrictions — on Russia’s energy, banking, and arms sectors — necessary to make Putin pay a heavy price.
Whoever fired the Russian-made SA-11 missile that brought down the civilian airliner, Putin deserves the blame. Remember that Putin precipitated the Ukrainian crisis in the first place, then escalated it ever since. In August 2013, Russia began to pressure, threaten, and bribe Ukraine to renege on a trade agreement with the EU that would have established a strong gravitational pull toward the West, prosperity, democracy, and freedom. Russia has undermined Ukraine’s elections, illegally annexed the Crimea (in violation of the 1994 agreement promising to respect Ukrainian sovereignty in exchange for Ukraine relinquishing its nuclear weapons), and crippled the Ukrainian economy by embargoing and raising the price of energy. Putin’s Russia has periodically massed Russian troops on the border of East Ukraine to intimidate the legitimate government of Ukraine. Putin has provided the pro-Russian separatists that are his fifth column with heavy equipment, missiles, tanks, financial support, and sanctuary. If Putin respected rather than menaced Ukraine’s sovereignty, the violence there would largely cease.
Western weakness has thus far enabled Putin’s worst instinct, swelled his most grandiose ambitions, and imperiled America’s stake in preserving an independent, democratic Ukraine. Without the abundant resources, strategically located expanse, and large Slavic population of Ukraine, Russia under Putin (authoritarian, corrupt and demographically shrinking) will have to reform or collapse as the Soviet Union did when faced with a resurgent United States under Reagan. With Ukraine as a Russian vassal, however, Putin’s tyranny will have a new lease on life — endangering the freedom and security of Europe.
The United States and Western Europe still possess a preponderance of options that could thwart Putin. A robust American deterrent will encourage Russia to reform rather than expand. For all its pretense, Putin’s Russia does not constitute the type of existential threat Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union did at the peak of those evil empires. What the West sorely needs is a Reaganite revival that repudiates Obama’s reset. One, impose comprehensive sanctions that hit Russia where it hurts. Two, provide weapons and ample economic aid to the legitimate Ukrainian government. Three, reverse Obama’s terrible decision to cancel President George W. Bush’s commitment to build missile defenses in Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. Four, deploy significantly more American troops in those countries to bolster the confidence of these staunchly pro-American allies while raising the barrier to Russian aggression. Five, abrogate the ill-advised START Treaty, which is highly disadvantageous to the United States, particularly its restraints on developing effective missile defense. Sixth, end the delusion that an implacably anti-American Putin will help restrain revolutionary Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold.
Otherwise, count on worse things to come: no one will stop Putin until we do.
Robert G. Kaufman is a professor of public policy at Pepperdine University and author of In Defense of the Bush Doctrine and Senator M. Jackson: A Life in Politics. Follow him on Twitter at @RobertGKaufman.