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Originally published Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 4:08 PM

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Who’s the real villain here?

The basic constraint is that there are more problems in international relations than solutions, writes syndicated columnist Nicholas D. Kristof.


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Shrewd reporting about the Ukraine crisis comes from The Onion, which declared that American reaction is evenly divided — between the “wholly indifferent” and the “grossly misinformed.”

In the latter category, it seems, belong the chest-thumpers who blame the Crimea catastrophe on President Obama.

“We have a weak and indecisive president that invites aggression,” scolded U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., (revealing his own weakness: grammar). “President Obama needs to do something!”

Likewise, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., complains that Obama’s foreign policy is “feckless,” so that “nobody believes in America’s strength anymore.”

U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, worries that Russia is “running circles around us.” The Washington Post warns in a stinging editorial that “President Obama’s foreign policy is based on fantasy.” The Wall Street Journal cautions that the basic problem is “Obama’s retreat from global leadership.”

Oh, come on! The villain here is named Putin, not Obama, and we should have learned to feel nervous when hawks jump up and down and say “do something!” We tried that in Iraq. When there are no good options, a flexing of muscles by NATO or by U.S. warships in the Black Sea would only reinforce President Vladimir Putin’s narrative to his home audience while raising the risk of conflict by accident or miscalculation.

Look, it’s true that Obama’s foreign policy has often been disappointing. Tripling the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan was a mistake. So was rejecting the advice of Hillary Clinton and David Petraeus to arm the Syrian opposition. The Obama pivot to Asia has stalled, serious engagement with Pakistan ended with the death of Richard Holbrooke, and Obama has appointed some appallingly uninformed campaign donors to be ambassadors.

Then again, Obama’s focus on nation-building at home is a nice change of pace from the Bush years. Moreover, Middle East peace talks are a plus, and talking to Iran is preferable to loose talk about bombing Natanz.

The basic constraint is that there are more problems in international relations than solutions. The critics I cite often rely on two fallacies: first, that Putin is driven by Obama’s weakness; second, that the seizure of Crimea is a great win for Russia.

The Soviet Union didn’t invade Hungary because of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s weakness, nor Czechoslovakia because of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s weakness. Russia didn’t help dismember Moldova because of President George H.W. Bush’s weakness or invade Georgia because of President George W. Bush’s.

We don’t have much leverage because Putin cares far more about Ukraine than he does about being in the G-8. So, by all means, let’s raise the cost of aggression with banking sanctions (which proved most effective against North Korea and Iran), but let’s also recognize that, in the long run, it’s Putin who has stumbled here.

Russia has just driven Ukraine into the West’s orbit and acquired a long-term headache. Russia is already pouring billions of dollars into the bits of Georgia and Moldova that it pilfered, and now it will have to subsidize Crimea (which depends on Ukraine for water and electricity).

Putin’s other problem: If Crimea becomes independent, its pro-Russian population would no longer vote in Ukrainian elections. The upshot would be Ukraine skewing even more to the West.

My father grew up in Western Ukraine, near Chernivtsi. Our family house was in better shape in the 1930s than it is today. A highway that my grandfather helped build a century ago was barely passable on my last visit. Corruption is far worse today. The entire system has failed, so, of course, Western Ukrainians look across the border at a thriving Poland, now firmly embedded in Europe, and see that as a far better model for the future.

Likewise, in a couple of decades, Russians may well look over the border at a thriving, European Ukraine and want that model for themselves as well. So be strong, Sens. Graham and McCain: Putin’s advantage is temporary.

Republicans should be pointing to Obama’s genuine giant foreign policy failure — Syria — and not Ukraine. The right’s demands that Obama confront Putin also seem odd because many on the right have praised Putin and his traditional values. The American Conservative suggested in December that Putin might be “one of us,” and Rudy Giuliani lately hailed Putin’s decisiveness and said: “That’s what you call a leader.”

Giuliani’s proposed solution to the Ukraine crisis: “We push him around. That’s the only thing a bully understands.”

It’s heart-stoppingly brave of unarmed Ukrainian soldiers, singing for courage, to walk toward Russian troops who point machine guns at them and then fire in the air. But idle calls from a television studio for Obama to “do something” or to push Putin around, that strikes me as not brave, just puerile.

© , New York Times News Service

Nicholas D. Kristof is a regular columnist for The New York Times.



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