Many years ago, Winston Churchill famously described Russia as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
Madeleine Albright and Jim O’Brien, two prominent members of the Clinton administration, recently updated Churchill’s definition.
“Under Putin, Russia’s rhetoric can be described as a fantasy inside a delusion wrapped in a tissue of lies,” they wrote in The Washington Post.
The Russian leader “may believe that Ukrainians are fascists intending to attack Russians, but it is not true.”
Ukraine’s interim government is widely representative, “and no outside observer has found evidence of a campaign of violence against Russians.”
These two seasoned diplomats — Albright was secretary of state, O’Brien was an envoy to the Balkans — are both Democrats, hardly bellicose hawks, but they seem to recognize the White House’s dangerous lack of resolve. Their advice should be attended by President Obama, whose foreign policy appears tentative at best and often dangerously indulgent.
Albright and O’Brien are absolutely correct when they say Putin’s “lies cannot be allowed to stand” and that “only a firm response has a chance” of deterring the Russian leader from expanding the scope of his campaign to bring Ukraine — and possibly other former Soviet satellites such as those in the Balkans — under Moscow’s influence,
The economic sanctions the United States and its European allies have imposed should be only a first set in blunting Putin’s naked ambitions.
Obama should make clear to Putin that the West has not wavered from its post-World War II commitment to a democratic and free Europe.
Albright and O’Brien propose that the status of the territories Putin covets should be contested. This can be done without military conflict. No aid should be sent to Crimea, whose newly minted officials should not be granted international recognition.
Putin’s authority, the former diplomats note, is drawn from his role as arbiter among 400 “men of power,” who profit from state-controlled banks and companies, and therefore their assets should be subject to scrutiny and interdiction when they cross international boundaries.
Most important, Obama’s trip to Europe for the Group of Seven and the American-European summit “should produce a strategy for the states bordering Russia ... the crux of any strategy must be to create durable economic and social ties for Ukraine and the West.”
Monday, during a stop in Amsterdam, the president’s comments were measured: “Europe and America are united in our support of the Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian people.”
The United States has a critical role to play in helping the Ukrainian people achieve their goals while putting Putin’s ambitions where they belong, in cold storage. But this will require the president to more forcefully demonstrate he is not going to indulge Putin’s dangerous fantasies.