It should be obvious to anyone paying attention that the Obama administration and its European allies are playing a cat-and-mouse game with Vladimir Putin that involves both the public and private wielding of various carrots and sticks. You don’t have to agree with what they’ve done to understand that there is no once-and-for-all Western “position” on Russia’s relationship with or designs upon Ukraine, but a series of calibrated steps.
It would be helpful, then, if Obama’s critics would pause a moment or two before making definitive judgments on his policies. Here’s how Fred Kaplan put it at Slate after a lengthy discussion of the ongoing chess game with Putin:
What’s going on now is not Cold War II. The Cold War split the entire world in two factions. Scads of civil wars, regional wars, and wars of national liberation were, in some sense, “proxy wars” in the titanic struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. China was used as a lever for playing one side off the other—and China played off both. Nothing like that is going on now. Nothing like it could possibly go on now. Neither side has the leverage to do it. Russia has no global reach whatsoever. Russia has no support for its actions in Ukraine; China has evinced no interest in it.
Right now, then, this is at most a regional conflict, not a global one, and the best thing that Obama can do—in both his threats and his inducements—is to keep it that way. Certain Republicans on Capitol Hill could help. Senators like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who used to know better, could lay off their absurd yelping about Obama’s “weakness” and “feckless leadership.” For one thing, it’s not true; at least when it comes to this crisis, they’ve recommended very few steps that Obama hasn’t already taken. If they’re really worried about Putin’s perceptions of America, instead of merely clamoring to make political points with GOP extremists, they should stand by the president and make sure Putin understands that, on this issue, there are no domestic fissures for him to exploit.
Unfortunately the Republican M.O. with respect to Russia and Ukraine (Marco Rubio’s WaPo op-ed today is a good example) seems to be to anticipate Obama’s next steps, demand that he take them immediately, denounce him for “weakness” when he doesn’t act precipitously, and then take credit when he does what he was going to do anyway.
This is a strategy based on scoring “cheap points,” in every sense of the term.