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Ukraine Crisis Boils Down to Geography, Not American 'Weakness'

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Some right-wing commentators are giddy with excitement over Russia's military intervention in Ukraine. The reaction might seem odd to the average American, but it was sadly predictable.

If our former Cold War adversary moves in to help quash a pro-democracy revolution, that's a bad thing, right? Of course it is. However, it is would also be a bad thing that happened while President Barack Obama is in office. That, to the president's opponents, is an opportunity not to be missed.

Last week, Fox News pundit and professional Obama-basher Charles Krauthammer said he was shocked by the "weakness" of President Obama's statement about the Russian incursion. Russian President Vladimir Putin, Krauthammer said, "knows he has nothing to fear from the west, because it's not led by anybody."

Former half-term Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, weighed in (of course) on Facebook. Palin gleefully patted herself on the back for kinda-sorta "predicting" in 2008 that the election of Obama as president would "encourage" Russian President Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine.

Breitbart.com columnist John Sexton mocked the president in a column titled "Good Grief! Obama Plays Charlie Brown to Putin's Lucy Once Again."

Do Krauthammer, Palin and Sexton have a valid point here? Did all of this happen because Obama is a big wimp? Would the Russians have made a different decision if John McCain or Mitt Romney were in the White House? To help us get to an answer, let's do a little thought experiment.

Imagine that drug-related violence or a political crisis seriously destabilizes Mexico. In our unlikely, but not impossible scenario, street demonstrations break out in Mexico City and other places in the country. Chaos reigns and people are getting killed.

Now imagine that the U.S. president decides -- with the support of some elements of the Mexican government, but in opposition to rebel forces -- to send in troops. Would you expect our government to fret much about what the Russians might do in response? I wouldn't.

Mexico means a lot more to the U.S. than to the Russians. Even if the rebels were (for some odd reason) pro-Russian, it's very unlikely Moscow would risk nuclear war to help them. That would be true whether the president of Russia was Putin or the reanimated corpse of Joseph Stalin. The threat of Russian military retaliation would be pretty far down the list of things to worry about.

Likewise, it's inconceivable that any U.S. president would order our military to repel a Russian invasion of Ukraine. It's a bad thing for Russia to do, but not something worth blowing the world up over. The Russians know it, the West knows it, and I suspect my dog knows it.

For the record, I think Obama is plenty tough and has run a mostly smart foreign policy. But, in this case, perceived "strength" or "weakness" of the person in the Oval Office is a non-issue. Starting in the Cold War era, Russia and the U.S. have spent decades avoiding a direct all-out military confrontation and will continue to do so.

Each side can count on that, up to a point. The "red line" exceptions would include a Russian attack on the U.S. itself or other NATO member states, or a U.S. strike on the Russian homeland or one of Russia's close allies.

It's popular to blame a president for anything horrific that happens on his watch. But nobody could honestly pin this crisis on Obama. Like the 2008 Russia-Georgia war that happened while George W. Bush was president, intervention in Ukraine was done based on the Russian leadership's short-sighted assessment of Russia's interests, not the toughness of our president.

That's not to say there is nothing we can do. As Obama has hinted, the U.S. can make this intervention a diplomatically and economically costly decision for Russia. Also important will be our willingness to dig deep to help encourage the independent, democratic Ukraine we would like to see. The revolutionaries need to know that they are not abandoned. Their cause would also benefit from having an iron-clad commitment of substantial foreign aid. As CNN's Timothy Snyder wrote in a recent column:

Now Western financial aid will be needed to transform that revolution into stability. The International Monetary Fund has promised loans, but this is not enough. People who risked death for the values we all claim to treasure, people who have brought a major nation back from dictatorship and to democracy deserve more than loans that will require immediate economic austerity.

They need very significant European and American financial support. This could include loans, quick free trade negotiations, financial institutions that offer microcredits, and visa-free travel for normal Ukrainians -- not just the billionaires.

That is going to be a big job and will call for the kind of bipartisan action that inspires our Western allies to do their part, too. It also requires Washington to resist the urge to use this crisis as just another occasion for finger-pointing and election-year posturing.

Whether the U.S. can muster the fortitude to do that will say a lot about our ability to remain an important and influential world power. We need to do this right.

Originally published in the Detroit News