The Pentagon may be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars studying Vladimir Putin’s body language in order to “better predict [his] actions,” but Putin does not need a study to read President Obama’s body language.
While more Russian forces were pouring into Crimea this past weekend, and Russian legislators announced their readiness to annex the Ukrainian province, where was our commander in chief? Monitoring events in the Situation Room? Meeting with the Joint Chiefs at the Pentagon? Holding an emergency meeting of NATO leaders? Nope. He was enjoying the Florida sunshine with his family at an oceanfront resort in Key Largo.
And Vice President Biden? He was on vacation in the Virgin Islands.
It’s winter for democracy in Ukraine, but for Obama and Biden it’s spring break.
Both the president and the vice president go on vacation. At the same time. During an international crisis. You can’t make this up.
If the president wants to use body language to send a message to Russia, the way to do it is to lean across the Resolute desk, look into a television camera and tell America and the world what is at stake in Ukraine — and what he intends to do to help the Ukrainian people.
The president’s defenders say he has limited options to counter Russian aggression. Please. The United States is still a superpower — and there is plenty Obama can do to raise the pressure on Putin short of sending in the Marines. He can announce that he is directing the military to begin immediate humanitarian relief flights to Kiev, just as we did in Tbilisi in 2008. Putin is less likely to threaten Kiev if there are U.S. troops conducting humanitarian operations on the ground. He can add that he has approved Ukrainian requests for military aid and intelligence cooperation so that the government can defend itself against aggression.
He can declare that he is calling an emergency NATO meeting and that the alliance will conduct military exercises in Poland, the Baltic states and Romania to reassure our allies that NATO will stand by its commitment to protect them from Russian aggression. He can say that the United States will push for another round of NATO expansion, to bring Montenegro and Georgia — and eventually Ukraine — into the alliance. This would make clear that Putin’s actions in Ukraine have backfired and will accelerate, not slow, the integration of Central Europe into Western institutions. He can further announce that he is halting the planned drawdown of U.S. forces in Europe and restoring plans to build robust missile defenses in Eastern Europe. Those plans, he can say, were canceled in an effort to “reset” relations with Russia — a policy that Moscow has now rejected with its actions in Ukraine.
He can inform Putin that it is now his responsibility to “reset” relations with the West by withdrawing his forces from Crimea. By contrast, the use of force in any way against Ukrainian citizens will be met with the mass expulsion of Russian ambassadors from the United States, NATO and the European Union ; the closure of the Russia-NATO Council; the suspension of all trade and investment agreements between Russia and the United States; and the ouster of Russia from the Group of Eight. Moreover, the use of force by Russia will result in far-reaching sanctions that will target Putin, his key advisers and the oligarchs backing him. They and — importantly — their immediate families will be declared persona non grata in the United States, unable to send their kids to Harvard or their wives shopping on Fifth Avenue.
Obama could also explain to the American people that this crisis has taught the world a lesson about the danger of energy dependence — and that because the diversity of production is critical to independence of action, he is approving the Keystone XL pipeline and issuing the permits for U.S. energy exports.
Most important, he can use a televised address to the nation to — finally — embrace the Ukrainian revolution. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets because they want to be part of the West — and Russia was forcing them against their will back into Moscow’s orbit. For months, Obama ignored the protests, and he still has not given his full-throated support to the aspirations of the Ukrainian people to choose their friends and live in peace. It is long past time he do so. Obama should stop treating this as a crisis to be managed and explain to Americans what is at stake — why Russian aggression must not be allowed to stand and why the universal values on which our country was founded must be defended.
In other words, there is plenty Obama can do. But Putin is calculating he won’t do any of it — that he will look for a way out, just like he did in Syria.
Obama needs to show Putin he is wrong. He can’t do it from Key Largo.