03/20/2014 10:57 pm ET Updated May 20, 2014

Obama, Putin and Ukraine: No Charge of the Light Brigade But A Big Unnecessary Crisis

Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the Valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

from The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, then Poet Laureate of Great Britain, commemorating a disastrous cavalry charge against Russian forces in the Crimean War's Battle of Balaclava, 1854

There was never much chance of the US intervening militarily in the Ukrainian crisis and President Barack Obama has ruled it out. Geographic realities and the correlation of forces were far too favorable to Russia. But we have wandered into another off-point geopolitical crisis, one which creates new risks and uncertainties when we need fewer.

Two weeks ago, I wrote that attempts by the US and allies to dislodge Russia from Crimea would fall very far short, that Vladimir Putin would quickly consolidate his position in a place that was part of Russia for most of the past few hundred years, standing fast with regard to more potential moves on a Ukraine that has suddenly shifted from an elected pro-Russian government to an unelected pro-Western government pending further developments with regard to the intentions of its emerging government. Putin wanted to see if a new Ukrainian president, who won't be officially elected till late May, will be someone he can deal with, or someone in favor of having NATO take up another position along the border of his many times invaded nation.

That is essentially what has happened.

We've seen what a frantic US effort to round up support for meaningful sanctions to reverse Putin's dramatic but not exactly surprising Crimea move finally amounted to.

Not so much.

The US has limited leverage with Russia -- as we already witnessed with Washington's furious reaction to Putin granting ex-NSA analyst Edward Snowden sanctuary in Russia after the Obama Administration oh so cleverly blocked the young libertarian computer whiz from passing through to his hoped for Latin American paradise -- and Europe is deeply intertwined with Russia's energy and financial might.

What is Putin doing? Why?

What is the best response, bearing in mind that, even allowing for the logic of his situation and relative correlation of forces in theater, Putin comes from a world view in which acquiescence to the naked use of force is not always viewed as wise?

And what is to come? A new cold war, as hyped in the hopeless media noise machine, or something less melodramatic yet still challenging?

In the last two days, Ukrainian military forces undertook their retreat from Crimea and the Russian Duma approved the annexation of Crimea following a big weekend popular vote in the late Ukrainian province. More angry American rhetoric at the UN Security Council, which led nowhere, was followed by Obama's Thursday announcement of a second round of US sanctions against Russia, the first round of US and European Union sanctions having been greeted with widespread guffaws. And Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has been assured, during an hour-long discussion with his Russian counterpart, that Russian forces massed near Ukraine's eastern border with Russia are merely on maneuvers.

Obama's latest sanctions are against intimates of Putin and his regime, and carry more sting than the first rather fanciful round. But it's not clear they carry much more bite, as these folks don't generally travel to the US and are unlikely to have much in the way of assets here. So again it's up to the Europeans to come up with the real economic sanctions.

But European leaders have struggled for coherence. British Prime Minister David Cameron talks a tough game that's undermined by photographed strategy documents revealing his desire to avoid anything that diminishes the City of London financial hub and its relationship with Russian capital. French President Francois Hollande intimates that Russia is out of the G-8 but worries about France's arms trade with Moscow. German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the one hand denies that Russia is out of the G8 but then says the G8 no longer exists, says that more sanctions will be imposed on Russia but then backs away.

For his part, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former Danish prime minister, told a Brooking Institution gathering in Washington on Wednesday: "As a first step, we have suspended joint planning for maritime escort mission for the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons," Rasmussen said. "This would have been the first joint operation of the NATO-Russia Council."

Considering how much consternation Syrian chemical weapons caused last year, nearly triggering Obama to lead us into the Syrian civil war, that doesn't seem all that wise, does it?

Almost all of the tough talk is either nonsense for the cameras or simple stupidity, the latter being in especially large supply on this side of the Atlantic. But all the cheap talk, reassuring in a way for its falseness, has a corrosive effect on credibility. And even though Putin, notwithstanding his domestic PR machine, is acting from what he believes to be the defensive position -- from his standpoint, he has lost big border state Ukraine as an ally and replaced it only with the much smaller Crimea as a returned part of Russia -- he may become emboldened to move to the offensive.

Ever since the Soviet Union fell, leaving Russia flat on its back, Russian politicians have been very sensitive about their borders. Unlike the US, protected by two vast oceans patrolled by the most powerful navy in world history, sharing borders only with friendly and far less powerful nations, Russia has no natural geographic obstacles to invasion.

Moscow is roughly 400 miles from the Ukrainian border, a distance I used to drive up and down California at the drop of a hat. Russia's capital nearly fell to the French under Napoleon in the 19th century and to the Germans under Hitler in the 20th century.

So the persistent efforts by NATO -- founded to oppose the Soviet Union, which no longer exists -- to expand right up to the border with Russia have caused great suspicion among Russian politicians, even the idealistic democratic reformers I worked with in the 1990s who were made irrelevant by the advent of their old sometime ally Putin. This is especially so with respect to nationalists like Putin, ever conscious of military history.

Absent natural geographic obstacles like oceans, deserts, or large mountain ranges, Russia relies on defensive depth. The farther an invader has to come, the better the chances for the defenders, as Russia's experience with some of the greatest conquerors in world history makes clear.

I've heard divergent stories about the origins of the NATO expansion strategy, which began not under Vice President Dick Cheney as you might suppose but very early on under President Bill Clinton, but the strategy has been very real. Looking at a map of Europe reveals that NATO is already on Russia's border to the north in the Baltic states and close to it in the south with Turkey.

And virtually all of the old defensive depth that Russia enjoyed west of Ukraine, with once aligned nations such as Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, has disappeared in a flood of post-Soviet NATO memberships.

Ironically, while it was Bill Clinton who pushed NATO expansion, it's less stereotypically liberal figures like former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and former National Security Zbigniew Brzezinski who recognize the problem it created for the Russian nationalist. Earlier this month, writing in the Washington Post, Kissinger renewed his call for NATO to keep hands off Ukraine and for Ukraine to pursue, like Finland, an international stance which neither one of alignment with the West or with Russia.

Last month, writing in the Ukrainian press, Brzezinski also called for the "Finland option" for Ukraine.

As natives of Germany and Poland, Kissinger and Brzezinski understand the dynamics of European history in ways that few Americans do. They also know Russia, again unlike most Americans.

They know that Crimea was part of the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union since 1783, though it was conquered and held for a few years by Nazi Germany after Hitler chose to invade Russia, a venture which frighteningly reached all the way to the gates of Moscow. Had the Germans not had to fight their way through Ukraine, the invasion of Russia would almost certainly have succeeded.

For centuries prior to it becoming part of Russia, Crimea, as the Crimean Khanate, was part of the Islamic Ottoman Empire. The reason why there was a dispute over it being part of Russia now is that, as part of a 1954 Ukrainian anniversary celebration by then Soviet boss Nikita Krushchev, a native Ukrainian, it was administratively transferred from the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. All part of the greater whole of the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics). When the Russian Federation emerged from the wreckage of the Soviet Union, then Russian President Boris Yeltsin, never a stickler for detail, didn't push to have Crimea returned from a suddenly independent Ukraine.

That set the stage for ongoing attempts to win Ukraine over to the West, either as a member of NATO or a member of the European Union or both. The demonstrations against deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich began immediately after he turned down a deal with the European Union for association status.

All this happened over a tug of war between Russia and US and Western European interests for the better part of a decade in internal Ukrainian politics, with a cast of characters replete with American political consultants and Russian spies.

Pro-Western politician Viktor Yushchenko was elected president of Ukraine in December 2004, defeating Yanukovich, the just ousted Ukrainian president who has found exile in Russia. But when he ran for another five-year term in office, in January 2010, Yushchenko, beset by corruption scandals despite his pledges of reform, won only 5 percent of the vote, finishing far behind Yanukovich and former Yushchenko ally Yulia Tymoshenko, "the gas princess" and former prime minister known for her ornately braided blonde hair and flair for political machinations. Yanukovich beat Tymoshenko, who had shown her ability to work with Russia as prime minister, by three points in the run-off.

Why hasn't Putin invaded to take over more of Ukraine, say key industrial sectors of the east with large numbers of Russian speakers? Given the halting and mostly rhetorical response from the European Union and the United States to the Crimea move, it might have made sense to do so. That would have presented the West with an even larger fait accompli.

If it was Putin's intent to conquer much of the rest of Ukraine, that is. Of course, it would have been considerably messier than the near bloodless re-annexation of Crimea.

Unfortunately, the Obama Administration has misjudged Russia from the beginning, as I wrote nearly five years ago in "Obama Does Moscow and Vice Versa." They imagined that they could concentrate on a relationship with then President and now Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, the Putin protege and ex-chief of staff who had job-swapped with Putin to avoid a change in the constitution. Even though Putin (who had intervened in border state Georgia just the year before over its growing ties to NATO) lectured Obama at length, after forcing him to come to his dacha outside Moscow, about Russia's concerns, with a very special emphasis on Ukraine, the reality that the administration had to deal not with a nice ally and potential buddy but a tough guy with very clearly defined limits did not sink in.

There are still mutual interests between the two countries, in ensuring that Afghanistan and Pakistan don't blow up, in constraining the rise of radical Islam and defeating transnational Islamic terrorism, even in containing the rise of Russia's current semi-ally China (speaking of the importance of maps, a China hungry for resources could turn at some point to its immediate north).

But now we have a massive controversy with attendant bad feelings over something which is of much greater central importance to Russia -- keeping neighboring Ukraine out of the West -- than it is to the US.

And we have a leader who respects force and employs it in ways that are contrary to international harmony who may come away with a bad lesson, i.e., that the US and the West can be rolled.

That's not a reason for a new cold war, much less a hot one. But it is a reason to examine potential ways to teach Putin a better lesson -- and to be clear, a bitter lesson -- without triggering a cycle of tit for tat.

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