For President Putin, a Ukrainian piece prize beats a Nobel.
Barack Obama thinks Vladimir Putin isn't such a smart guy. "There's a suggestion somehow that the Russian actions have been clever, strategically," Mr. Obama said last week about Moscow's bloodless coup de main in Crimea. "I actually think that this is not been a sign of strength."
"Is not been a sign of strength" is not been a sign of grammar. Good thing it wasn't George W. Bush doing the talking.
Let's get to Mr. Obama's main point about Mr. Putin's alleged dumbness: "Countries near Russia have deep concerns and suspicions about this kind of meddling and, if anything, it will push many countries further away from Russia."
Terrific. Maybe Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania can slip their Baltic moorings and row themselves west once Mr. Putin starts agitating on behalf of ethnic Russians in those once-Soviet, now NATO-member states. Kazakhstan, where ethnic Russians are in a majority in several districts bordering Russia herself, is also ripe for a Crimean-type caper. Has Mr. Obama worked out a plan for the Kazakhs to get away from Russia, other than by launching themselves en masse from the Baikonur Cosmodrome?
It's funny, almost, to watch Mr. Obama and his friends in the media talk themselves into the conceit that they've gained the upper hand against Mr. Putin. "Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake," writes one of those friends, citing Napoleon. Really? Perhaps Mr. Putin will oblige us by seizing eastern Ukraine, too. Given this logic, by the time the armies of Vlad the Bad reach the Vistula, our victory will be all but complete.
Vladimir Putin leads a meeting at his residence outside Moscow, March 5. Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
As Mr. Obama and friends see it, by seizing Crimea Mr. Putin has lost the battle for global public opinion. "I think everyone recognizes that although Russia has legitimate interests in what happens in a neighboring state, that does not give it the right to use force as a means of exerting influence inside that state," scolded Mr. Obama.
This is of a piece with the notion that geography no longer matters; that borders, resources, the high ground, the warm-water ports and everything else that nations have fought over since time immemorial are superfluous in our 21st-century world.
What a wonderful thought. But not all countries are blessed with oceans for borders. Not all leaders get to live in magic kingdoms where Nobel Peace Prizes are bestowed before they are earned. And not all leaders want to live in those magic kingdoms, either.
So Secretary of State John Kerry accuses Mr. Putin of engaging in 19th-century behavior. Is that supposed to be a bad thing? In 1814, Czar Alexander I led the Russian army into Paris and accepted the keys to the city from Talleyrand. Mr. Putin surely won't make it that far, but achievement is almost always measured as a fraction of ambition. The easy seizure of Crimea is almost certainly enlarging Mr. Putin's ambition.
Another theme of recent days is that whatever else the Crimean incursion signifies, it's not a new Cold War. Russia does not have the power of the Soviet Union. Its economy is inextricably linked with the West's. Its aims are national, not ideological. And so on.
I've been thinking about this line of argument and there's something to it. Perhaps the right historical analogy isn't to the four decades that followed World War II. It's to the two decades that preceded it.
Then, as now, liberal democracies were both burned and burned out by war. Then, as now, economic problems and the thirst for "normalcy" made them turn inward. Then, as now, American presidents believed in the necessity of disarmament, the sanctity of international law and the importance of leading by moral example. Then, as now, the liberal democracies were consumed by a sense of guilt over their own past supposed misdeeds. Back then it was the "Carthaginian Peace" of Versailles. Today, it is the witless argument that we have no standing to criticize Mr. Putin's seizure of Crimea after our own invasion of Iraq. (On this point: Who exactly is Crimea's Saddam ?)
Then, as now, too, the rogue regimes of the day soon figured out that the liberal democracies weren't interested in policing the world order. In 1931 Japan invaded Manchuria. A year later, a fact-finding mission sent by the League of Nations reported that Tokyo probably hadn't been acting in self-defense when it took northeast China. Japan walked out of the League, and it was on to Nanking. Meantime, Italy developed a taste for Abyssinia.
Here is the connection between the U.S. capitulation in Syria and the invasion of Crimea, which Mr. Obama and his defenders are so eager to deride. The connection isn't necessarily causal. It's environmental. America is in retreat; in his speech last September on Syria, Mr. Obama explicitly endorsed the view that "we should not be the world's policeman." So now we're living in the broken-windows world of international disorder. The rogues look around. When they sense an opportunity they seize it, calculating that they will pay no price.
They have paid no price.
Mr. Obama might think that in the 21st century, moral opprobrium (from him) is punishment enough. But Vladimir Putin isn't playing by Mr. Obama's idea of 21st-century rules. The right response to a Russian power play is a power play of our own. Ballistic missile defenses on NATO's eastern flank would be a good place to start.
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