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Putin unchecked

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Now that the Sochi Olympic have come to an end — and the world’s attention is focused elsewhere — there is widespread concern Russian President Vladimir Putin may try to dismantle Ukraine. On Sunday, National Security Adviser Susan Rice said it was a “grave mistake” for Russian troops to try to split apart the country. Somewhat strangely she said, “It’s not in the interests of Ukrainian or of Russia or of Europe or the United States to see the country split. It’s in nobody’s interest to see violence returned and the situation escalate. There is not an inherent contradiction . . . between a Ukraine that has longstanding historic and cultural ties to Russia and a modern Ukraine that wants to integrate more closely with Europe.” Of course it is in Putin’s interest to split and control the eastern part of Ukraine, thereby establishing his growing domination of former Soviet states.

Others took a more hard-nosed view of matters. On Fox News Sunday, Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) bluntly said:

[T]his is an opportunity for the president to really be unequivocal with Putin right now in the Ukraine, what happens in the Ukraine very much matters. They need to determine their future, not Russia. We have seen obviously behavior from Putin from harboring Snowden to the efforts to interfere in Syria and also with arming the Assad regime, in addition to that thinking about the reports of their violations of the IMF treaty, their reset policy has failed.
It’s time to reset the reset, and I think Ukraine presents an opportunity for the president to do that with clear American leadership here for a good outcome. . . .  I think the president needs to be clear public and unequivocal right now with a message to Putin, because the idea that they could actually interfere with the territorial sovereignty of the Ukraine — I mean, look what happened with Georgia. I think that this is a very real possibility.

Appearing alongside Ayotte, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) was firm as well, “They are going to continue, Russia and Moscow and Putin, will continue to pressure Ukraine, and the trump card they own is natural gas. . . . We have to do everything that we can to encourage Ukraine to move forward peacefully toward democracy but understand that Putin has been a threat for many decades.” (He also bizarrely accused some unnamed Republicans as wanting to “invade,” as if anyone had suggested the U.S. deploy any forces.)

The public concern that Putin would even contemplate such a move speaks volume for how confident he is in his ability to steamroll the European Union and United States. As George Will put it, “The president may not look upon this as a Cold War chessboard, but Putin clearly does . . . Putin is unreconciled to the collapse of his empire.” One reason he is not reconciled, of course, is because he sees the United States in retreat and is determined to exploit our president’s fecklessness and distaste for robust action. Russia has no qualms about bolstering Bashar al-Assad or striking new commercial deals with Iran because there is no price to be paid for such behavior. So long as we continue to mouth platitudes that “this is not about Russia,” the Russian leader will see reluctance to block his dreams of another Russian empire. We sound like we’re in denial, and he intends to take full advantage of it.

President Obama’s successor will have the unpleasant task of trying to rebuild U.S. credibility and rebuff Russia’s momentum. We have frittered away our ability to deter aggression and sent at best mixed messages about our willingness to defend our own interests and that of our allies. If that successor is Hillary Clinton, I suppose she’ll have to renounce and reset the reset policy she foolishly peddled in Obama’s first term. I suspect she’ll have a tough time convincing Putin that this time she won’t be snookered.