An ascendant Vladimir Putin is dismantling the Ukraine and absorbing its eastern territory in the Crimea. President Obama is fighting back against critics that his administration serially projected weakness, and thereby lost the ability to deter rogue regimes. Obama, of course, rejects the notion that his own mixed signals have emboldened Putin to try something stupid that he might otherwise not have. After all, in terms of planes, ships, soldiers, nuclear strength, and economic clout, Putin must concede that he has only a fraction of the strength of what is at the disposal of the United States.
In the recriminations that have followed Putin’s daring intervention, Team Obama has also assured the international community that Putin is committing strategic suicide, given the gap between his ambitions of expanding the Russian Federation by threats of force and intimidation, and the rather limited means to do so at his disposal. Perhaps Putin is pandering to Russian public opinion or simply delusional in his wildly wrong calculations of all the bad things that may befall him.
Do any of those rationalizations matter—given that Putin, in fact, did intervene, plans to stay in the eastern Ukraine, and has put other former member states of the former Soviet Union on implicit notice that their future behavior may determine whether they too are similarly absorbed?
History is replete with examples of demonstrably weaker states invading or intervening in other countries that could in theory or in time bring to their defense far greater resources. On September 1, 1939, Hitler was both militarily and economically weaker than France and Britain combined. So what? That fact certainly did not stop the Wehrmacht over the next eight months from invading, defeating, and occupying seven countries in a row.
Hitler was far weaker than the Soviet Union. Still, he foolishly destroyed his non-aggression pact with Stalin to invade Russia on June 22, 1941. Next, Nazi Germany, when bogged down outside Moscow and having suffered almost a million casualties in the first six months of Operation Barbarossa, certainly was weaker than the United States, when Hitler idiotically declared war on America on December 11, 1941.
Yet all those demonstrably stupid moves did not prove that Hitler himself agreed that that he was weaker than his targets. Much less did Nazi Germany have any good reason from recent experiences to accept the fact that it was weaker than were its enemies. Even Neville Chamberlain did not claim that Hitler had invaded Poland because he was weaker than France and Britain—though again he probably was.
From Benito Mussolini’s invasions in 1940-41 of France, the Balkans, and Greece to Argentine Gen. Galtieri’s attack on the Falklands in 1982 and Saddam Hussein’s entry into Kuwait in the summer of 1990, there are plenty of examples of weak states attacking countries who have alliances or friends far stronger than the attacker. Why then do the Putins of the past and present try something so shortsighted—as the Obama administration has characterized the Ukraine gambit?
Answer? Strength is in the eye of the attacker.
What might prove to be demonstrably stupid in the future, or even seems foolish in the present, may not necessarily be so clear to the attacker. The perception, not the reality, of relative strength and weakness is what guides aggressive states.
Obama looks to logic, reason, and morality in his confusion over why Putin did something that cannot be squared away on any rational or ethical calculators.
Putin, however, has a logic of his own. American intervention or non-intervention in particular crises is not just the issue for Putin. Instead he sees fickleness and confusion in American foreign policy. He has manipulated and translated this into American impotence and thus reigns freely on his borders.
Red lines in Syria proved pink. Putin’s easily peddled his pseudo-WMD removal plan for Syria. America is flipping and flopping and flipping in Egypt. Missile defense begat no missile defense with the Poles and Czechs. Lead from behind led to Benghazi and chaos. Deadlines and sanctions spawned no deadlines and no sanctions with Iran. Then there was the reset with Russia. Obama’s predecessors, not his enemies were blamed. Iraq was cut loose. We surged only with deadlines to stop surging in Afghanistan. Loud civilian trials were announced for terrorists and as quietly dropped. Silly new rubrics appeared like overseas contingency operations, workplace violence, man-caused disasters, a secular Muslim Brotherhood, jihad as a personal journey, and a chief NASA mission being outreach to Muslims.
Putin added all that up. He saw a pattern of words without consequences, of actions that are ephemeral and not sustained, and so he concluded that a weaker power like Russia most certainly can bully a neighbor with access to stronger powers like the United States. For Putin and his ilk, willpower and his mythologies about Russian moral superiority are worth more than the hardware and data points of the West.