Déjà vu in Central Europe: Ukraine Between East and West

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Since Thursday, at least 142 activists have been arrested while protesting against the North Dakota oil pipeline.

Question #1: Why, despite his velvet-soft threat “to look at all options…short of military confrontation,” has President Obama been so diffident in dealing with Putin?

Question #2: Why did NATO not draw a line in the sand after Crimea?

Question #3: Why not give Putin a taste of his own medicine by quietly supplying Kiev with defensive weapons while denying any direct involvement?

One possibility worth pondering is imperial overstretch. A second, not unrelated to the first, is fatigue or exhaustion – so many costly interventions, wasted lives, old friends alienated, new enemies made; so little to show for it. Clearly, there’s more – a lot more – at play here than meets the eye.

Partisan attacks on Obama’s masculinity have no matter basis in fact than doubts about America’s military muscularity.

For over half a century, military intervention has been the hallmark of U.S. foreign policy. The list of countries where U.S. military and intelligence actions aimed at overthrowing governments and/or ousting leaders we didn’t like is a long one – among others, Libya (1989 and 2011), Yugoslavia (Serbia) (1990s), Iraq (1990s), Afghanistan (1979-1992), Vietnam (1950-1973), Cambodia (1955-1973), Cuba (1959-1962), Chile (1964-1973), Guatemala (1953-1990s), Panama (1989), Nicaragua (1978-1989), El Salvador (1980-1992), Grenada (1979-1984), Haiti (1987-1994), the Congo (Zaire) (1960-1965), Dominican Republic (1963-1966), Iran (1953), and the Philippines (1945-1953).  Not to mention, the never-ending post-911wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  And now the “Islamic State” (aka, ISIS).

Given this history – feckless foreign policy, disastrous entanglements – is it any wonder that when a real crisis rears its ugly head – a crisis that poses a clear and present danger to world peace – the commander in chief blinks, balks, or backs away?

History will one day judge this to be the biggest cost of having fought too many foolish wars: that in the prelude to a necessary war, the most muscular military power in world history, paradoxically, was in no condition, position, or mood to respond in a timely way.

Like the little boy who cried wolf in Aesop’s Fable, the U.S. has fought too many wars and resorted to military intervention too often in the past at too high a cost and for too little gain.

It’s part of Putin’s strategy to reconstitute the Old Russian Empire, starting with Georgia in 2008, continuing with the annexation of Crimea last year, and now the proxy secessionist movement in eastern Ukraine, where the death toll has now climbed above 5,400, making it the deadliest war in Europe since the bloodbath in the Balkans at the end of the last century.

On paper, the new ceasefire looks promising.  Unfortunately, where Putin is concerned, scissors cuts paper and a deal is never a deal. The trouble is:

…Putin plays by different rules; indeed, for him, there are no inviolable rules, nor universal values, nor even cast-iron facts (such as who shot down flight MH17). There are only interests. His Russia has graduated from harassing ambassadors and assassinating critics to invasions. This is one of his assets: a readiness to stoop to methods the West cannot emulate without sullying itself.

There’s always a chance that this time will be different, but don’t count on it. Putin believes time is on his side, that he can play divide and conquer in Europe, that America suffers from chronic battle fatigue and Americans are soft, spoiled, and effete.

And then there’s Washington: dysfunctional, bitterly partisan, and frozen in a permanent state of finger-pointing gridlock.

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. In 1938, Hitler illegally seized western Bohemia (the Czech Sudetenland).  In 2008, Putin did precisely the same thing, extorting South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia.  Last year, the serial smash-and-grab crime wave on Russia’s fringe engulfed Crimea.

Clearly, Putin has set his revanchist sights on the densely populated Donetsk Oblast (region) in eastern Ukraine. If he’s allowed to win that piece of real estate, the obvious question then becomes: What or who is next?

It’s self-evident that unnecessary wars are to be avoided like the plague (an apt metaphor). But sometimes even necessary wars can be nipped in the bud.

Appearing indecisive in a crisis emboldens the aggressor. Appeasement in the face of piecemeal aggression is more likely the road to war than a detour around it. That was one of the lasting lessons of the 20th Century and Europe was the initial proving ground – Eastern Europe to be more precise.

While Russia proceeds to dismantle and emasculate Ukraine in a methodical, step-by-step strategy, Washington is too busy trying in vain to put out fires it should never have started in the first place to get involved beyond making empty declarations. Pious pronouncements and empty warnings have the reverse effect of making the U.S. look weak in Putin’s eyes and the eyes of the world.

The U.S. is hardly more likely to stop Putin at present than it was to stop the Axis Powers in the 1930s when the U.S. was in a Depression-induced stupor that kept Washington in thrall to its isolationist fantasies while Germany and Japan set out redrawing the map of Europe.

The reason has nothing to do with this President’s masculinity and certainly doesn’t reflect a lack of U.S. military muscularity.  The problem lies in the fact that virtually every president since Harry Truman has seen fit to use military force indiscriminately. Actions have consequences and consequences pile up. Think of it as the cumulative effective of too many ill-starred military actions that produced too many unintended consequences and too many disappointing outcomes.

It’s possible that the mortal threat to what remains of Ukraine’s territorial integrity is the most dangerous threat to peace in Europe since World War II. It’s probable that crisis will not end until Putin is stopped. It’s almost certain that if push comes to shove it will fall to the United States to stop him.

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