Crimea River

There is no monopoly in common sense
On either side of the political fence
We share the same biology
Regardless of ideology
Believe me when I say to you
I hope the Russians love their children too

— Sting, “Russians”

The post-911 world is some sort of demented wonderland populated by Muslim extremists, increasingly unpredictable and dangerously weird North Korean dictators, and petty despots so determined to cling to power that they would rather commit genocide with poison gas and barrel bombs than risk even the slightest whiff of democracy in their countries. And let us not forget the rise of “moderates” in Iran who appear finally to be ready to negotiate a reduction in its nuclear program in exchange for easing economic sanctions. In this topsy-turvy new world order, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to send Russian troops into the Crimea is an almost refreshing return to the geopolitics of the Cold War.

Putin has made no secret of his desire to restore Russia to the level of international power it held before the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the post-Soviet era he has been adept in using “soft power” in the form of Russia’s huge energy reserves and bribes barely disguised as loans to keep the former Soviet republics in the Russian orbit and beyond the influence of the West. Indeed, even the most powerful member of the European Union, Germany, can only push Russia so far, as it too is dependent upon Russian natural gas to power its economy.

For its part, the United States has few cards to play in this crisis. With a nation weary of and bloodied by thirteen years of war, and a Congress unable to agree upon the day of the week, President Obama is not about to commit military forces to moving Putin out of the Crimea. So instead, he must rely upon diplomacy and threats to freeze visas and assets of Russian individuals. Putin undoubtedly knew that he had the stronger position than his American counterpart; and this emboldened him to invade the Crimea.

Putin has been careful to describe his move into the Crimea as a defensive action to protect the lives and interests of the Russian-speaking minority in the region; and he has assured anyone who will listen that he has no designs upon the rest of Ukraine. But make no mistake: Putin is sending a strong signal to Ukraine and its newly-installed and terribly weak government in Kiev. Like Glenn Close’s unforgettable Alex Forrest in the 1987 film “Fatal Attraction,” Putin wants Ukraine to know that Russia will not be ignored.

It is incredibly fortunate that thus far there have been no violent altercations between Russian and Ukrainian troops in the Crimea. It would, however, be foolish to rely upon the continued good sense of commanders on the ground to avoid disaster. While it is true that no one is worried that the current crisis will escalate into a nuclear confrontation, we should not forget that a century ago, a devastating global war ignited from what began as a regional conflict (which also happened to involve Russia).

Reagan, Thatcher, and the other great Cold Warriors of the West are now gone; and one would be hard-pressed to find any current president or prime minister of their stature who can oppose Putin and assert the leadership that could inspire the people in struggling democracies like that of Ukraine, and remind tyrants everywhere that their days are numbered.

Barack Obama may have won the Nobel Peace Prize; but in the global game of chess with Vladimir Putin, he is being schooled by a true Grandmaster.