Karl Marx once observed that history repeats itself, first as tragedy second as farce. If this is true, then Russian President Putin’s annexation of the Crimea is history repeating itself. The combination of authoritarian politics, rampant nationalism and revanchism was at the heart of the tragedies that engulfed Europe throughout the Twentieth Century. Now they are back.
The West’s reaction to Russia’s illegal action is clearly the farce. In response to an action that many political figures, strategists and historians liken to Nazi Germany’s moves against Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938, what has the Obama Administration done? First, the President pronounced solemn warnings of the dire consequences for Russia if it went ahead with annexation. Funny, that didn’t seem to have any effect on the Kremlin. Following the rigged Crimean referendum on independence, the U.S. imposed travel and banking sanctions on 11 individual Russians and Ukrainians; the European Union, showing a spine of steel, upped the ante to 21 named individuals. However, Secretary of State John Kerry, channeling Sonny Corleone, made sure to publicly reassure President Putin that there was nothing personal involved in any sanctions; it was all strictly business. A Russian government minister on the sanctions list is reported to have tweeted President Obama inquiring as to the point of imposing sanctions on someone with no bank accounts or business interests in the West.
This is the play book for crisis management if it were written for Monty Python. I can just imagine an alternative history in which Britain and France responded to German occupation of the Sudetenland by freezing Hitler’s, Goering’s and Goebbels’s bank accounts and denying them visas. Unable to order clothing from Harrods’s or perfume from Chanel and prohibited from vacationing on the Cote d’Azur, the leaders of the Third Reich capitulate. John Cleese, call your agent, there is a part for you in a new comedy act: Obama and Putin, Grumpy Old Presidents.
It may be true, as some pundits have observed, that the West lacks good – actually this means cheap and easy – options for halting Russia’s aggression against its neighbors. But must the few steps we do take look feckless and silly? When the Ukrainian Foreign Minister visited the White House asking for military assistance, the Administration took the bold and very public step of offering military rations. Really, MREs to halt Russian tanks? Then, the White House has the chutzpah to characterize its actions against the “Dirty 11” the most comprehensive sanctions to hit Russia since the end of the Cold War. What would Presidents Kennedy, Reagan and even Carter think? Did the White House forget the Magnitsky Act, which was signed into law just a little over a year ago? Please, Mr. President, if you cannot act tough try not to sound ridiculous.
In fact, there are many steps the U.S. and its allies could and should take even now that would not merely send a message but cause Russia real pain. France could cancel its sale of amphibious warfare ships and other military hardware to Russia. Better still, it could offer this equipment to Ukraine. Great Britain could announce that it will halt planned cuts to its military force structure. President Obama could announce a substantial military assistance package for the Ukraine. The U.S. and the European Union could curtail the operation of Russian banks in the West.
There is no way of knowing if, as many critics alleged, the Administration’s past behavior encouraged the Kremlin’s aggression. But continuing to behave as though they were participating in a comedy sketch rather than what potentially could be the opening act of a 21st Century tragedy isn’t just bad policy, it’s ludicrous.
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