Timid mice in Congress cringe in fear and bluster with outrage at Russia's invasion of the Ukraine. Seldom known for bravery and nearly always known for outraged bluster, Congress better find a spine. The United States, especially Congress, requires a reality check. Even at the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was both an economic and military basket case. Russia is but a mere shadow of the former Soviet Union. Here is where the danger lies.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian citizen's world changed almost overnight. Russians, long forced to embrace both poverty and a failed society, still possessed tremendous pride as part of a respected and feared superpower. Following the collapse of that superpower, Russians found the pride gone while the poverty and failed society remained. Putin maintains power by promising a return to those past glory days. The promise is hollow.
Putin's invasion of the Crimea is already costing Russia dearly. President Obama is steering the correct course when he strengthens the region to offset Russian 'exercises' but the real punishment here will be financial and sanctions. Remember, you can't even compare the Russian economy to that of the U.S. -- it isn't even close. One Forbes writer called it a pre-Eisenhower economy as comparison. The Russian military is little better. According to Forbes' Michael Adomanis, the Russian economy is best summed up by:
...But the fact that Russia is now, roughly speaking, at the level of economic development which characterized the U.S. before Eisenhower became president should give us a little bit of perspective...
U.S. Saber Rattling
Apparently, Osama bin Laden thought of President Obama in the same way as Republicans claim Putin thinks of him -- A huge mistake then; a huge mistake now. However, Russia is not going to lose its strategically vital warm water seaport. Putin knows his military is no match for that of the U.S. and her allies but he is also fairly certain that we will not go to war over this grab. Where the failed Bush regime saber rattled in vain over Putin's invasion of Georgia, President Obama sent some jets to the region but has begun far more damaging sanctions and other actions against the Russian economy. Will Obama be effective? Time will tell but looking at the value of the ruble, he has already hurt the Russians.
Foreign policy is the art of the possible. U.S. credibility as a just nation is seriously damaged from two unnecessary wars conducted badly, not to mention torture and Guantanamo. Yes, Iraq and Guantanamo are but two examples that apply here. Iraq was a unilateral, national decision to invade and destroy another government. Guantanamo applies because it remains a U.S. base solely because of American military might. Russia maintains a large naval base and military presence in the Crimea since at least the 1700s. If the Ukraine embraces the EU, those bases and Russian national security will be in jeopardy. These are the issues put simply.
What Lies Ahead
The Ukraine, essentially voting with its feet to embrace the west over Russia, is a huge blow to Putin. The West cannot allow itself to be bullied into acceptance of Russian intervention or more upheaval and power grabs are likely. President Obama learned this lesson domestically confronting congressional Republican ultimatums threatening to default on U.S. debt. Republican leaders' calls for failed Bush/Cheney style saber rattling will work as well now as they did in Georgia where they failed massively. Putin ignored them. This is not about U.S. strength or weakness but rather about Russian vulnerability and failure.
The Obama administration's emphasis on rational and smart diplomacy remains the correct course. No need to back Putin into a corner, when he has already painted himself into one. This move is catastrophic for both Putin and Russia. The task now is to impose significant pressure and costs on Russia for its actions in the Crimea while offering a path to restored respectability.
Long after this crisis, if the Ukraine is transformed into a prosperous state similar to Poland, the world will have a real victory. Putin's invasion is an admission of weakness -- their economy and society simply cannot compete with that of Western Europe. Putin knows it and tries to hide it. This is the time for the West to display solid resolve coupled with a willingness to negotiate a reasonable solution.