How should the West respond to Putin's gambit? No doubt Putin calculated that neither the Europeans nor the Americans would do anything much to stop him. He sees America as a nation in decline and has little fear of or respect for President Obama. Freezing the assets of a few Russian oligarchs gains him nothing but understandable derision.
Given what the Marxists like to call "the correlation of forces" there is, indeed, little chance of a direct military confrontation over either Crimea or Ukraine. If Putin wants the whole region no one will risk war to stop him from taking it.
Even so, there are lessons to be learned and measures we could take in response. Defense expert Clifford May outlines several things we could, and should do. He writes:
What President Vladimir Putin has done in Ukraine [is] in clear violation of the United Nations Charter, the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, the 1994 Budapest Memorandum (which "guaranteed" Ukraine's territorial integrity in exchange for the surrender of its nuclear weapons), and the 1997 Ukraine-Russia Bilateral Treaty.There's much more in May's article that's worth considering.
The answer is not to posture. Nor, I think, is it to punish Russia directly. Instead, recognize that Mr. Putin, along with Iran's supreme leader, China's rulers, and other dubious international actors regard the diminution of American power as their strategic goal, a necessary precondition for the achievement of their regional and global ambitions.
So make it clear that the weakening of America stops right here and right now. Do that by implementing policies to strengthen America. This will frustrate our adversaries and enemies, and bolster our allies. The following are four such empowering policies:
First, restore missile defense: Five years ago, President Obama canceled plans to build a Europe-based missile-defense system. Why? To please and appease Mr. Putin, who thought it possible — and unacceptable — that such a system might be used to protect Americans from Russian missiles, in contravention of the Cold War doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction.
We should make it clear that henceforth, we intend to protect ourselves — without apology. America has the technological know-how to build a system that could prevent any intercontinental ballistic missile from any country reaching its intended victims anywhere in the world.
In addition: Cancel the 2010 New START arms-control treaty, which was a great deal for Mr. Putin (no cuts of deployed warheads or strategic launchers), and a bad bargain for the United States. (We have reduced our arsenal.)
Second, get energetic: Two years ago, Mr. Obama promised "an all-of-the-above strategy for the 21st century that develops every source of American-made energy." He has done next to nothing to fulfill that pledge.
Energy abundance and diversity should be our goal. That means more fracking. That means tapping petroleum on federal lands. That means ending the ban on "flexible-fuel" vehicles capable of running on a variety of liquid fuels. That means eliminating bureaucratic barriers to entrepreneurship and competition — with investors, not politicians, attempting to pick winners. That means eliminating environmental rules that impose more costs than benefits.
A byproduct of such policies: They would create jobs and reduce poverty — because the poor spend a larger percentage of their income on energy (electricity, gasoline and heating and cooling of their homes) than do their wealthier neighbors. Cheaper energy also would stimulate economic growth. A bigger American economy means a more powerful America.
Third, make a Group of Eight — Minus 1: The Group of Six was founded in 1975 as a forum of the world's leading industrialized democracies. When Canada joined the following year, it became the G-7. Russia was added to the club in 1998 despite the fact that it was not then — and is not now — an industrialized democracy.
On the contrary, Russia is an autocracy and relatively underdeveloped, with per-capita wealth about a third that of South Korea. What riches it possesses have not been created through invention, innovation and productivity, but through the exploitation of natural resources controlled by oligarchs.
Fourth, respect the wisdom of "Si vis pacem, para bellum." That's Latin for "If you want peace, prepare for war," a doctrine dating back to Plato. Mr. Obama does not subscribe to it. Instead, he assures us that the "tide of war is receding."
However, Iran, the world's leading sponsor of terrorism, continues to spin centrifuges. Al Qaeda forces are fighting in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and North Africa. China is throwing around its growing military weight — including a 12 percent increase in military spending for 2014.
I would just add that a fifth step would be to start selling some of that petroleum and natural gas May talks about to Europe to wean them away from dependency on Russian oil and thus Russian blackmail.
A sixth would be to open the pipeline of arms to Ukraine. The Ukrainian foreign minister came to Washington last week to ask for military assistance and President Obama promised him rations. Mr. Obama has to realize that there are people in the world who don't swoon when he speaks. He has to realize that there are national predators who will take whatever they can get away with taking. They are not deterred by seeing the only obstacle to their aims slashing its defense budget and reducing its nuclear forces. Weakness is not a deterrent. Conciliatory speech is not a deterrent. Apologies and appeasement are not deterrents.
Nobody wants conflict or tension, but President Putin has launched the opening salvo in a new cold war. He has seen Mr. Obama fritter away American influence and leadership in Europe. He has seen Mr. Obama talk tough on Iran and Syria and then do nothing. He draws the conclusion that if the U.S. won't take on the Iranians or the Syrians they're certainly not going to stand up to the Russians in their own backyard. Perhaps President Obama can find it within himself to rise to the challenge, but if he doesn't Mr. Putin will ultimately accomplish what the left constantly insists we can't do in our own society - he will have turned back the clock. In their case he will have turned it back forty years and reestablished the old Soviet Union.