Obama Used Invisible Ink to Draw a Line with Putin

Obama Used Invisible Ink to Draw a Line with Putin

REUTERS/Konstantin Grishin

If anybody had any doubt that the United States was serious about the crisis in Ukraine, the Obama Administration dispatched its most steely-eyed, gravelly-voiced national security heavy to the Sunday talk shows to set the record straight. After having been ignored by Putin, the protestors, the Europeans, whole legions of unidentified troops, and all eight current Ukrainian governments, Obama sent John Kerry to lay down the law.  Definitely not a redline, mind you, but without question some sort of…thing.

It is certainly needed. A bare 24 hours after the President’s warning on Friday that Russia not use military force in the Crimea, Russia used military force in the Crimea. Now the other shoe would drop.  On shows like ABC’s This Week, Kerry issued a stark warning.  First, though, he helpfully cited a number of documents relevant to the situation: 

Related: Putin Risks Political and Economic Isolation with the West

“What has already happened is a brazen act of aggression, in violation of international law and violation of the UN Charter and violation of the Helsinki final act. In violation of the 1997 Ukraine-Russia basing agreement.” To be fair, it’s important to include the footnotes up front.  Sets the stage, so to speak.  Establishes the tone.

Then, having laid the groundwork, Kerry dropped the hammer:  “I think there are, you know, they are inviting the possibility of very serious repercussions on trade, on investment, on assets, asset freeze, visa bonds. The potential of actions by the global community against this unilateral step.” 

All right, so perhaps Kerry’s threat was missing a bit of oomph.  But just to make sure the Russians were paying attention, Obama was even more direct during a 90-minute phone call with Putin on Saturday.  Moscow’s actions in the Crimea, said the President, would “impact Russia’s standing in the international community.”  

It certainly would. I’d say the international community is much more likely to believe Russia will do what it says than the United States will.  It’s probably higher odds, for example, that there will be Russian troops in the Crimea in 50 years time than that the US will pay off its loans.

Obama’s most recent warning was at least relatively more straightforward than his previously disregarded warning (again, in the loosest, most non-redline sense of the word) on Friday that “...the United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there would be costs for any military intervention in the Ukraine.”

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Whoa!  All across America, public speaking teachers were spitting out their coffee.  Active verbs, Mr. President!  In the indicative!  “There would be costs”?  That certainly sounds like a man determined to have his way.  Just absolutely determined to have the costs genie come down from Marshmallowland and impose some big ones.  Try this instead: “We will impose costs.”  Or, for Sun King disciples, “I will impose costs.”  Putin, undoubtedly, will get the reference: L’etat, c’est moi. 

Just to reinforce that this was seriously not a red line, though, Obama explained to Putin that aggressive policies weren’t actually in Russia’s interest.  They would jeopardize “…the stability and success of a united Ukraine going forward, which is not only in the interest of the people of Ukraine and the international community, but also in Russia’s interest.”

Putin will be glad to know that. But it’s actually a pretty good bet that Russia has a better grasp of Russia’s national interests than America does. Lecturing an aggressor about their aggression is usually a bad sign, most often heard from diplomats who are being bullied and don’t want to bully back.

That’s not surprising. More even than usual, the administration looks like a group of highly intellectual graduate students challenged to a fistfight by a jerk. They’ve got lots of interesting hypotheses on the situation, some fairly articulate footnotes, and one frankly devastating satirical preface, but nobody who can actually fight, because it’s scary. And so they’re being humiliated. 

Related: Obama Can’t Stop Putin’s Push in Ukraine

It’s ironic that for all the talk about how tough Chicago politics are, and what hardball they train into their politicians, Obama is absurdly soft in the face of menace. Sure, he’s tough on certain things – House Republicans, debt ceiling limits, Bibi Netanyahu – but give him someone who doesn’t have to kowtow and he shrivels. Let the mullahs have Syria, Putin have Ukraine, street gangs have Libya, and China most of the habitable islands in the Pacific Rim. They’re willing to scrap for them.

John Kerry was thus just following his boss’s lead. But the baffling thing about his performance was its intended audience—not the Russians, hopefully. It was hard to imagine a message less likely to make them hesitate, and they were certainly aware of the Administration’s position (again, in the loosest sense of the word) through official contacts. 

Not the new Ukrainian government, which no doubt was hoping for stronger medicine, nor our allies, who after all are the international community being “worked with.”  No, Kerry’s performance was in fact directed at us, the great American herd, which makes its morning coffee and picks up its morning paper and sees Ukraine going to hell.  Note the blizzard of high-diplomat-ese, the treaties and conventions, the rhythmic repetition of phrases like “global community” and “international entities.”  It’s a show.  It’s a Wizard-of-Oz facade to make us think that President Obama wasn’t just humiliated on the world stage.  But he was.  Which is fine, except unfortunately, that means the United States was too.

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