On the wall of my office hangs an original of the November 5, 1956 issue of the Baltimore Sun. The headline story is the Russian invasion of Hungary just the day before. It's a grim reminder of the cold breath of Russia in Eastern Europe, I guess relevant these days.
In a conversation few years ago Nick Clooney (yes, the father of George) told me how he, as a young U.S. Marine in Western Germany, was ready to go help Hungary:
"The orders never arrived. We were all crying. There was a feeling of helplessness. It's a shame still. I want to apologize."
The Russians knew that the West would do nothing. Putin is making the same calculations today, as he is invading the Ukraine. He has so far heard talks of red lines which turned into pink lines -- my apologies LGBT friends -- which turned into no lines at all. We must prove him wrong.
Here are some elements in his calculation.
He has this idea that the West is stuck with him in Syria and Iran. In a way he is right. But it is time for the West to connect the dots between Russian military presence in Syria and the desire to control Ukraine. They are elements of the same strategy. Hopefully, the U.S. at last is getting the idea: This is about the big picture.
He knows today more about the West's internal quarrels, the family feuds. This to a great part thanks to Mr. Snowden, who is clearly part of the plot, rather than just a little toy soldier, an unexperienced beginner. He can now congratulate himself, he is part of the big boy's game. And he didn't have to kill a rock star to be famous. (Vladimir should officially adopt Edward... )
Like in the past, he is counting on a good portion of anti-American sentiments in Western Europe, which he of course helped and helps stoke. He has polished this rusty tool in his toolbox. He clearly sees the clash with the West on the Ukraine as a clash with the U.S.
He thinks he has Europe by the throat in terms of its energy dependence, which is of Europe's making. He is mostly correct on this one. Russia would be seriously hurt by Europe not buying its gas. But is not worried... He is certain that complacent and spoiled Europeans would blink first: Russians can and will survive want and cold for a lot longer than they can. European governments would fall in days, there would be demonstrations. He must think that if Europeans have to choose between heating and the freedom of others, we will without hesitation choose heating.
He has no doubt followed the EU-Ukraine negotiations to every detail, read the emails of bureaucrats in Brussels and heard phone conversations of European leaders ( the NSA was not the only one listening).
He is counting on Germany first and foremost. Even this week, when the "house was already burning," on the eve of Foreign Minister Steinmeier's visit to Washington, a dangerously silly article by the head of a German foundation in D.C. -- close to the government I am told -- was published. The article nonchalantly mentions that perhaps there are "bilateral" issues to be discussed like Ukraine, Syria and Iran, it is the NSA scandal that continues to overshadow the German-U.S. relationship. What a combination of arrogance and ignorance. The Russian Embassy must have reported this to Moscow with a glee. His divide and rule strategy has an impact.
During the Olympics -- which made him stronger at home -- the West went to sleep. His planners were working 24/7. He enjoys the West scrambling for a solution.
We have been warning about the impending crisis on Europe's eastern border, the real nature of Putin's intents, the dangers of the reset idea, for months if not years, calling for urgent and tough action. Today our warning is the following: Russia intends walk the whole mile, splitting the Ukraine. Our message is the same: get tough as the loss as a result of inaction will be far greater than the risks of pushing back. Use all our tools and yes, NATO must be pulled into this and be the place for consultation among allies what to do. See Russia's action as a threat to the security and stability of the Alliance and its partners and call an emergency summit. This could easily be Obamas most important legacy.
Values matter. Conscience matters. Putin now dragged us into a Cold War game of chicken. He could carelessly thrust the world back to the Cold War, which we can't allow to happen. Perhaps thats exactly what he wants. We must prove that democracies can indeed play hardball. If we stay strong, he will back down. We must act with determination to help Ukraine, otherwise the shame will be terrible, which we will bear the rest of our lives.
Nick Clooney must be feeling miserable these days.
Follow András Simonyi on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CTR_SAIS