CNNDoes Obama really understand Putin?
By Andrew C. Kuchins
updated 10:09 AM EDT, Sun March 30, 2014
Editor's note: Andrew C. Kuchins is director and senior fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
(CNN) -- I recall being an undergraduate in Russian Studies at Amherst College when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. I was flabbergasted when then-President Carter initially expressed surprise that Leonid Brezhnev and his cronies decided to undertake that ill-fated adventure. Just the little I knew of Soviet history at that time led me to conclude that one should never be naïve about Russia. Wisely, the Carter administration soon implemented a wide-ranging and powerful set of sanctions against the USSR.
By comparison, Barack Obama is now making Jimmy Carter look like Attila the Hun with a series of empty threats and "too little, too late" punitive measures against Putin's Russia.
On February 28, President Obama warned Russia not to take military action against Crimea, and if he did so, serious "costs" would be imposed. A few weeks later, Crimea was annexed to Russia and virtually no serious "costs" have been incurred from U.S. sanctions.
Andrew C. Kuchins
Andrew C. Kuchins
Now Obama and our European allies have virtually conceded Crimea, but again warn Putin that we really mean it this time, that if you take military action in Ukraine outside Crimea, you will be really sorry!
I think the only thing that has surprised Putin is how weak Obama's response has been. The administration was not prepared for the contingency that Putin would act so brazenly.
But Obama's stubborn insistence on a measured, incremental approach seems premised on his belief that Putin will, after his frustration and anger clears, come to his senses and seize the proverbial "off ramp" Obama and his officials ritualistically refer to, hearkening back to nearly two years of the mantra, "Assad must go." We know that Assad never left, and I see no evidence that Putin wants to take the "off-ramp."
Surely Putin's goals were not limited to getting Crimea while losing Ukraine. That does not make sense. And since he has met virtually no push back for Crimea, why would he stop there?
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It is not like his views on Ukraine are not fairly well known. At the Bucharest NATO summit in April 2008, Putin told George W. Bush in no uncertain terms that Ukraine was not a real country. And now Putin has found the appropriate moment to demonstrate to the "trans-Atlantic community" that Ukraine is not a real country by starting to dismember it with impunity.
In case there was any doubt about Putin's views of the illegitimacy of the post-Cold War European security order in Europe, his vitriolic speech to the Federal Assembly in Moscow on March 18 should clarify it for skeptics. I have no doubt that there is nothing Vladimir Putin would rather do than delegitimize the post-Cold War order, expose the Trans-Atlantic partnership as a sham and deeply degrade U.S. leadership in the world. He has already gone fairly far down that path in four weeks.
Why do American presidents have such a hard time understanding Russian leaders? First, it starts with our inability to fathom just how traumatic the collapse of the Soviet Union was for several generations of Russians. From a clinical standpoint, Russia has been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder for the past couple of decades.
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