It is not true — as some conservative websites have recently claimed — that Vladimir Putin once remarked that “negotiating with Obama is like playing chess with a pigeon. The pigeon knocks over all the pieces, shits on the board and then struts around like it won the game.”
That particular wisecrack is attributed to one Scott D. Weitzenhoffer, who made it in 2005, not about negotiating with Obama, but about debating evolution with Christian creationists. Like a lot of topical humor, it’s been updated.
Little matter. The important point is that the joke succinctly conveys the profound contempt with which Putin demonstrably regards Obama.
And why shouldn’t Putin be contemptuous of him? Obama has worked hard for the last five years to earn his contempt. American foreign policy under Obama has run the gamut from insouciant bumbling to cavalier bumbling to feckless bumbling. Putin saw his opportunities and — once he got through rubbing his eyes in disbelief — took them.
Thus Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2010, its re-arming of Assad in Syria last year, its ongoing role as enabler of the Iranian and North Korean nuclear weapons programs — and its recent seizure of the Crimea.
However, the question isn’t what should Obama have done in the past, but what should he be doing now.
So far, the response of the administration and its main European allies to Russia’s seizure of the Crimea and massing of troops on the Ukrainian border has been ludicrously flaccid.
Sharply worded condemnations have been issued. Ambassadors have been recalled for consultations.
Secretary of State John Kerry has rushed off to Kiev on a hand-holding (and loan-guaranteeing) mission.
The seven major industrial countries that along with Russia make up the G8 (the U.S., Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Japan) have all announced that they have suspended preparations for upcoming G8 summit meeting scheduled to be held in Sochi in June. The U.S. and Britain have gone so far as to announce that none of its cabinet ministers will attend the Paralympics, which are due to start in Sochi this Friday.
Obama and other Western leaders are threatening to impose economic sanctions on Russia.
All the responses except the last one are empty symbolism. The last, threatening Russia with economic sanctions, is delusional.
If the West attempts to impose economic sanctions on Russia, Putin will cut off natural gas shipments to Western Europe. Economically, Putin can hit Europe a lot harder than Europe can hit Putin.
In short, the response of the Western democracies has been not much different than their response to the Nazis’ remilitarization of the Rhineland (on March 7, 1936, 78 years ago), their response to the Austrian Anschluss (annexation) by Germany (on March 12, 1938), and their response to the Czechoslovakian crisis the following fall, which resulted in the Munich Agreement: huffing, puffing, posturing and preening. Putin probably expected as much.
So, to borrow a phrase from Lenin, what’s to be done?
At least four things. First, Obama should immediately announce he is cancelling the cuts to the U.S. military that he was due to announce this week and tell Congress that in view of the changing international climate — as evidenced by Putin’s Crimea invasion, he will be announcing plans to expand it instead — starting with a resurrection of plans to base antimissile defenses in Eastern Europe.
Second, Obama should fast-track the construction of liquefied national gas (LNG) export terminals (several are currently under review) and immediately approve the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. These steps will, respectively, make it possible for Western Europe to reduce its dependence on Russian oil and natural gas and put downward pressure on the global price of both crude oil and natural gas. Since Russia’s post-Soviet economic revival has been largely sustained by oil and gas exports, this will serve to undermine the economic model — petro-tyranny — that has enabled Putin’s bad behavior. This would be much more damaging than sanctions, and much easier to impose.
Third, Obama should ship sufficient arms to non-Islamist Syrian rebels to counter the aid Putin has been giving to Assad.
Finally, there is the matter of the Budapest Memorandum.
Unlike 10 former Soviet Republics and Warsaw Pact members, Ukraine is not part of NATO.
But in 1994, Ukraine entered into an agreement with the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China called the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances — under which the five nuclear powers agreed to guarantee Ukraine’s territorial integrity and political independence in return for which Ukraine agreed to give up the nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles that it inherited when the Soviet Union collapsed and to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. At the time, Ukraine had the third-largest nuclear arsenal in the world. Today it has no nuclear weapons.
The most substantive thing the United States could do in the present crisis is to announce it will honor the Budapest memorandum — which Russia has violated, of course.
Since Obama has little or no stomach for military action, the U.S. should, at a minimum, start a major arms lift to Ukraine, so that it could mount a serious defense of its territory if Putin chooses to invade the eastern part of the country.
Then there’s the nuclear option.
Ukraine gave up its nukes in exchange for an American guarantee of its territorial integrity. If Obama isn’t prepared to honor that guarantee with boots on the ground, he should do the honorable thing and replace Ukraine’s nukes with a gift of some of ours. A couple hundred Tomahawk Cruise Missiles fitted with nuclear bombs should be sufficient.
If that be pigeon chess, make the most of it.
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.