Late Friday, with words of more Russian troops arriving in Ukraine’s Crimea Region, President Obama got tough:
Obama called on Russia to respect the independence and territory of Ukraine and not try to take advantage of its neighbor, which is undergoing political upheaval.”
Then, with that bit of unpleasantness out of the way, Mr. Obama went off to a Democratic National Committee event. The record will show that Russian President Vladimir Putin was unimpressed with Obama’s rhetoric. I don’t think National Review’s Victor Davis Hanson got an advance copy of the President’s remarks, but he was prescient in describing our “useless outrage” over Russia’s military moves. After all, we’ve been down this road before:
And while direct military intervention is not an option, there are steps the U.S. can take around the periphery of Ukraine’s borders. We currently have small military detachments in Poland; the U.S. should consider rotating deployments of F-16s and F-15Es from other locations in Europe (and the United States), to Lansk AB, similar to our bomber deployments to the Far East.
Washington should also consider a larger naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea regions; we dispatched two ships during the Sochi Olympics (ostensibly to assist with potential counter-terror operations), Unfortunately, that operation ended badly when one of the vessels, a destroyer, ran aground during a port call in Turkey.
However, prospects for an increased military presence in eastern Europe and adjacent waters are just about zero. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel just unveiled plans to further slash the military budget, so there won’t be a lot of money for additional, long-term deployments. In fact, the Hagel-Obama plan calls for retirement of Air Force’s A-10 and U-2 fleets (almost 400 aircraft), and some analysts believe other platforms will be heading for the boneyard as well. Fewer airplanes means more personnel reductions, and less for operations and maintenance. In other words, don’t look for F-16 or Strike Eagle squadrons at Lansk (or any other Polish bases) any time soon.
Economic sanctions against Russia are another possibility, but once again, don’t hold your breath. Mr. Obama seems to go out of his way to avoid antagonizing Vladimir Putin, who (as a former KGB agent) knows weaknesses when he sees it. From the Kremlin’s perspective, going into the Crimea is a no-brainer, since they have nothing to fear from the Ukraine and its erstwhile friends in the West.
Maybe that’s what President Obama meant when he told Putin’s predecessor (read: sock puppet) that he would have “more flexibility” during his second term. With Obama in the White House for another three years, Putin and his thugs apparently have the green light to do whatever they choose. This isn’t the first time Mr. Putin has thrown down the gauntlet to his American counterpart. It won’t be the last. And don’t think this latest example of U.S. weakness is going unnoticed in Tehran or Beijing, either.
ADDENDUM: Various media outlets are reporting that Mr. Obama skipped a national security meeting on Ukraine this afternoon. Maybe he believed the preliminary intel assessments that Russia was bluffing; as late as Thursday evening, the bright boys and girls in our intelligence community were assuring decision makers that Moscow had no plans to invade by the Crimea, based on various factors, including an absence of medical units among potential invasion units and the lack of SIGINT activity that suggested Russian units would soon cross the border. We should note that President Obama spent 90 minutes on the phone with Putin on Saturday–perhaps explaining his absence from the NSC meeting–but the conversation clearly achieved nothing.