NOTE: for previous coverage of the situation in Ukraine/Crimea, you can follow this live coverage post.

Putin is no doubt quaking in his boots at this warning issued by President Obama:

“We are now deeply concerned by reports of military movements taken by the Russian Federation inside of Ukraine,” Obama said in a hastily arranged public statement from the White House briefing room.

“Just days after the world came to Russia for the Olympic games, it would invite the condemnation of nations around the world. And indeed, the United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine,” the president warned.

Costs…costs…what could they be?

Here are some possibilities:

It was unclear what sort of action Obama might take or what limited approach would deter the Russians.

The United States is consulting with its European allies on next steps, a senior administration official told Yahoo News. One option: Boycott the Group of Eight summit due to be held in June in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. Another option: Reject Russian efforts to promote trade with the United States. Putin sent a team of officials to Washington this week for just that purpose.

And Russia will face other possible costs, such as a worsening of its already shaky international reputation, and a drop in the value of its currency, the ruble, making imports more expensive and reducing the relative value of its exports.

It’s not as though previous presidents would have gone to war over Putin’s actions. But Obama’s warnings on this—or anything except his phone and his pen—have an especially hollow ring.

I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, which happened when I was young. It came about in part because Khrushchev was emboldened by what he perceived as JFK’s youth and naivete; in other words, Kennedy’s weakness. Khrushchev had taken Kennedy’s measure at a previous summit, and found him wanting in cojones:

By all accounts, including Kennedy’s own, the meetings were a disaster. Khrushchev berated, belittled, and bullied Kennedy on subjects ranging from Communist ideology to the balance of power between the Soviet and Western blocs, to Laos, to “wars of national liberation,” to nuclear testing. He threw down the gauntlet on Berlin in particular, all but threatening war.

“I never met a man like this,” Kennedy subsequently commented to Time’s Hugh Sidey. “[I] talked about how a nuclear exchange would kill 70 million people in ten minutes, and he just looked at me as if to say ‘So what?'” In The Fifty-Year Wound, Cold War historian Derek Leebaert drily observes of Khrushchev in Vienna, “Having worked for Stalin had its uses.”…

Immediately following the final session on June 4 Kennedy sat for a previously scheduled interview with New York Times columnist James Reston at the American embassy. Kennedy was reeling from his meetings with Khrushchev, famously describing the meetings as the “roughest thing in my life.” Reston reported that Kennedy said just enough for Reston to conclude that Khrushchev “had studied the events of the Bay of Pigs” and that he had “decided that he was dealing with an inexperienced young leader who could be intimidated and blackmailed.” Kennedy said to Reston that Khrushchev had “just beat [the] hell out of me” and that he had presented Kennedy with a terrible problem: “If he thinks I’m inexperienced and have no guts, until we remove those ideas we won’t get anywhere with him. So we have to act.”

Kennedy may have been young and inexperienced enough to have given the wily old Soviet leader an impression of weakness, but Kennedy was not so young and inexperienced that he didn’t understand how dangerous that was. He went about trying to correct the impression as best he could. One of the ways he did this (especially interesting in light of Obama’s recent request for large military cuts) was to seek “congressional approval for an additional $3.25 billion in defense spending, the doubling and tripling of draft calls, calling up reserves, raising the Army’s total authorized strength, increasing active duty numbers in the Navy and Air Force, reconditioning planes and ships in mothballs, and a civil defense program to minimize the number of Americans that would be killed in a nuclear attack.”

As might be expected, Khrushchev decided to call the young leader’s bluff, and erected the Berlin Wall and then resumed atmospheric nuclear tests. The Cuban Missile Crisis followed, and there it was Khrushchev who ended up backing down. Some people are also of the opinion that Kennedy’s intervention in Vietnam was part of a pattern designed to prove to the Soviets that he was willing to fight.

The whole thing began with a perception of Kennedy’s weakness at the summit. But early on, Obama had not appeared to have learned anything from that piece of history:

In Portland on May 18 [2008], Obama cited John F. Kennedy’s 1961 summit with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna among the series of negotiations that led to America’s triumph over the Soviet Union in the Cold War. The Vienna summit, however, disproves Obama’s assertion regarding the unvarying value of meetings between enemy heads of state about as decisively as any historical episode can refute a thesis. In addition to poor judgment, Obama has demonstrated that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

The situation now is different than in the Cold War, but not all that different. And telegraphing weakness and naivete is never a good idea—especially when dealing with the Russians, but anywhere on the geopolitical stage.

Speaking of not knowing what he’s talking about:

Here was Romney’s original statement, prior to the debate:

And here’s Romney’s response to Obama during the debate:

And then there’s a little thing called the Budapest Memorandum. The Daily Mail calls it a “forgotten treaty,” and my guess is that it will remain forgotten. It has become more and more clear that our agreements have become worthless and meaningless under this president. And by the way, that memorandum was signed by Bill Clinton, back in the days.

The Budapest Memorandum was “part of the denuclearization of former Soviet republics after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.” We promised to defend Ukraine if it were invaded by Russia, and Ukraine promised not to pursue nuclear arms. But one way to get out of that promise is to say the current action is not an invasion; it’s an “uncontested arrival.”

[Neo-neocon is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at neo-neocon.]


Donations tax deductible
to the full extent allowed by law.