There are those who are criticizing President Obama for not doing more about Russia and the Ukraine. I would argue that he and Kerry ought to be doing less because what they are doing is so inept it is almost comical. We have a weak leader (as perceived by a majority of Americans) playing a weak hand. Given that, less is better than more, lest the US be perceived as even weaker. Red lines that are indefensible and threats of “consequences” that impress no one are pointless. Given the nature of this administration, the less action there is the less embarrassment there will be.
Putin sees a power vacuum, with weak, irresolute western leaders that he has only contempt for, and he is acting on it. The main basis for the “illegality” of Russian actions is an agreement made in the 1990s to guarantee the territorial integrity of Ukraine as it gave up its nuclear weapons. Among the signatories to this were Russia and the US. So Russia has reneged on another agreement. Who is surprised by this? For it is not only international agreements that they have discarded but also contracts with gullible western corporations dumb enough to do business there under current conditions.
The notion of the “west” and Russia as the “east” is a false dichotomy. The Russians inherited the same Greek foundation as the west via Greek monks who created their alphabet and converted them to Christianity a thousand years ago. It is ironic that after more than seven decades of communism Russia today is far more Christian than the west. It is through this prism that Putin views western countries as degenerate and weak. But Russia also feels threatened by NATO expansion to its borders, which is one of the main reasons that Putin wants the former Soviet republics to get in line with Russia.
The real barrier to better relations and integration with the western world is the lack of rule of law in Russia, which involves more than just arbitrary government. Normal business cannot be conducted with parties who renege on contract agreements. This will continue as long as there is not a a truly independent judiciary. Constitutional government requires more than the formal edifice of institutions with separate powers. Putin’s government is not so much in opposition to this as several steps removed. His model now is essentially that of the state as protector of traditional values, defender of the faith, etc. with himself at the apex of the state. Nevertheless his government still has support with the majority of the population.
This is not to suggest that Russian aggrandizement should not be opposed, but realistically just what assets do we have available for this? This administration does not have the standing in the world to support its posturing. We need to take a longer term view to a post-Obama (and Putin) world. If Russia annexes Crimea based upon a popular vote it will backfire on them badly. For if Crimea can have self-determination then logically the restive regions in the Caucasus could do the same. Thus Chechnya and Dagestan could use the same pretext to break away from Russia. What the US and other western countries need to do is focus on rebuilding the economy, institutions, and strength at home before we can be taken seriously abroad.