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Stop Bashing Obama on Ukraine

03/03/2014 04:53 pm ET | Updated May 03, 2014

Even as I write these words, President Obama, who probably hasn't slept much lately, is being bombarded with advice on Ukraine: Do this. No, don't; do that instead. Do that, but not yet.

Apart from the pressure the president is under, it must be galling to be criticized by, and receive counsel from, individuals who have far less information than he does about what's happening on the ground in Ukraine and until recently (if then) couldn't spot Balaklava or Simferopol on a map.

Here's the thing: Many people are outraged, and justifiably, by Vladimir Putin's risible claim that he was forced to act to defend Ukraine's ethnic Russians (who exactly has been attacking them?). But there's nothing Obama can do to get the Russian soldiers, now patrolling various parts of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula, back in their barracks.

Not unless he starts a shooting war with Russia, and probably not even then. Geography and the balance of forces give Putin the overwhelming advantage in this particular crisis.

Then there's the matter of mustering support here at home for a full-blown confrontation with Russia.

Imagine that you're asked to participate in an opinion survey. The first question is: "Should the United States threaten or use military force to defend Ukraine against Russia?" My bet is that you'd answer that query in a second -- and with a resounding "no."

Well, you'd be in good company. So would the overwhelming majority of Americans.

Which brings us back to Obama.

There's a lot of talk that Russia's power play in Ukraine is another example of how the (supposed) decline of American power and credibility on Obama's watch has emboldened folks like Vladimir Putin.

That's nonsense.

Ronald Reagan, whom conservatives worship as the symbol of strength, was in the White House when the army in communist Poland quashed the opposition Solidarity trade union in December 1981. What did Reagan do apart from condemning the move? Basically nothing.

In August 2008, George W. Bush, who'd boosted defense spending and, in a display of American military prowess, toppled the Taliban and Saddam Hussein a few years earlier, looked on as Russian troops rolled into, and over, Georgia.

So what's happening in Ukraine has nothing to do with Obama's weakness or naivete or Putin's contempt for him or the United States.

Russia's Black Sea Fleet is based in Crimea (at Sevastopol), and thousands of Russian soldiers were already stationed there. Putin ordered them to fan out and seize key installations, which they have. Ukraine is outmanned and outgunned.

What precisely would Obama's critics have him do to reverse result?

Chastising Putin won't achieve much: he obviously anticipated that the United States and its allies would condemn him, as they have.

Obama can't recall our ambassador from Moscow to signal his displeasure: the man who occupied that post, Michael McFaul, recently resigned and hasn't yet been replaced. That would be a dumb decision anyway. What's required, especially now, is to keep communication channels with Moscow open.

Some have suggested kicking Russia out of the G-8, the club constituted by the world's economic powers. But Obama can't do that alone, and German chancellor Angela Merkel has stated that she won't go along.

Even if Russia were evicted from that elite conclave it's not going to change the arithmetic of power in Ukraine and the facts of geography. Both overwhelmingly favor Putin. Yes, Russian prestige would take a hit, but Putin's got very thick skin.

The same applies to boycotting the upcoming G-8 summit in Sochi (yes, that Sochi). That's not going to convince Putin to rethink what he's done. Besides, the meeting won't be held till June.

What's more, six members of the G-8 (Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan) have already joined the United States to announce that they will "suspend" participation in the summit until normalcy returns to Ukraine.

There are certainly various forms of economic pressure that could be applied to get Russia's attention. But none would work unless other states with clout in the global marketplace joined the effort -- the leading members of the European Union, for example.

But Putin can apply counter pressure. Europe still gets a good proportion of its natural gas from Russia--about a quarter of its consumption: 270 million cubic meters a day. And it's wintertime, incidentally. Even under the best of circumstances, sanctions would take time to bite. Simply announcing them won't convince Putin to retreat.

Are there things Mr. Obama can do? Sure there are.

The president can make it clear that the United States condemns what Russia has done.

He can rally other countries to join the chorus of criticism.

He can -- and really should -- stop issuing warnings to Putin about serious consequences and costs. So should Secretary of State John Kerry. That kind of verbiage merely highlights the limitations of American power in this instance and diminishes the president's credibility.

Don't make threats you can't or won't implement. Better to speak softly and mean what you say. (You'll recall that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad crossed Obama's "red line" in August and used chemical weapons against civilians.)

Together with Europe, Japan, and the IMF, Obama can mobilize the money that Ukraine, teetering on the brink of default, desperately needs.

Mr. Obama is already doing much of this.

Meanwhile, if anyone has a concrete plan that will impel Putin to order his troops to stand down, they should present it. But let's stop making Ukraine's crisis into an occasion for Chicken Little-like warnings, jeremiads about the erosion of American power (not everything is about us), rants about Obama's fecklessness, and calls for showing Putin who's boss.

That's what armchair strategists who have the luxury of sounding off without having to bear responsibility for the consequences of their advice do.

That's their right. But you don't want them in the White House. Nor should you pay attention to their chest thumping or prophesies of doom.