“Mr. Obama is focused on isolating President Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia by cutting off its economic and political ties to the outside world … and effectively making it a pariah state.”
So wrote Peter Baker in Sunday’s New York Times. Yet if history is any guide, this “pariah policy,” even if adopted, will not long endure.
Three years after Khrushchev sent tanks into Hungary, he was touring the USA and celebrating with Ike the new “Spirit of Camp David.”
Half a year after Khrushchev moved missiles into Cuba, JFK was talking detente is his famous speech at American University.
Three weeks after Moscow incited the Arabs in the Six-Day War, Lyndon Johnson was meeting with Premier Alexei Kosygin in New Jersey, where the “Spirit of Glassboro,” was born.
So it went through the Cold War. Post-crises, U.S. presidents reached out to Soviet leaders. For they saw Russia as too large and too powerful to be isolated and ostracized like North Korea.
These presidents also understood that the American people wanted constant efforts made to reduce tensions and avoid war with a vast country with thousands of nuclear weapons. And presidents being politicians, be they Democrats JFK or LBJ, or Republicans Eisenhower, Nixon or Reagan, responded to this political reality.
We may not have liked the Soviets. We could not ignore them.
But if throwing Putin out of the frat house and off campus is an unsustainable policy, what of the hawkish calls for a return to Cold War containment and military countermeasures against Russia?
Well, let us inspect them one by one.
We are urged to go back to building a missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. But this is a project of years. And before this shield was ever up and operational, Moscow could deploy hundreds of new offensive missiles targeted on Central and Western Europe.
How would that make our allies more secure? How would Angela Merkel respond to that?
Among Reagan’s achievements was persuading Russia to pull its triple-warhead SS-20s out of Eastern Europe, in return for our taking our Pershing and cruise missiles out of Western Europe.
Do we really want to reverse the Reagan triumph of 1987?
Some conservatives want to send arms to Ukraine. But given the performance of Ukraine’s army in the Crimean crisis, we would be provoking a war Ukraine could not win, while ensuring the casualty count would be higher.
And as almost no Americans favor U.S. “boots on the ground,” the result of a Russia-Ukraine war our arms provoked would be a beaten Ukrainian army and an occupied country.
Others urge Obama to move U.S. troops permanently into Poland, the Baltic states and Romania. Will Germany, Spain, Italy, France and Britain be sending troops as well?
Is there any time between now and eternity when the world’s richest continent will provide the soldiers for its own defense?
Another idea gaining currency is that we should start shipping oil and gas to Europe to reduce its dependency on Russia.
Certainly, U.S. energy independence, and the restoration of our lately lost industrial independence, is a good idea. But weaning Europe off the Russian gas on which it so heavily depends is another project of years, if not a decade.
Meanwhile, Russia could build pipelines to a fuel-hungry China and cement a Moscow-Beijing alliance, the rupture of which was Richard Nixon’s great achievement.
Are we thus left with no options, in Nixon’s phrase, a “pitiful helpless giant” in preventing Ukraine’s absorption by Russia?
By no means. But as Henry Kissinger argues, “the demonization of Putin is not a policy. It is an alibi for the absence of one.”
What we must recognize is that, Beltway bluster about U.S. troops in the Baltic and warships in the Black Sea aside, the United States is not going to war with Russia over Ukraine, or Estonia.
For we cannot defend Estonia either. By bringing the Baltic nations into NATO, as some of us loudly warned at that time, we were handing out war guarantees no sane president was going to honor.
As we hold a weak hand in Ukraine, we should let Putin take the lead.
If what he wants is a Ukraine that is not in NATO, a Ukraine that is decentralized, where the East retains cultural and economic ties to Russia while the West has ties to Europe, that is no threat to us.
What should we do if Putin seizes Southern Ukraine to Odessa?
What did Ike do about Hungary in 1956, or JFK do when the Wall went up? What did LBJ do about Czechoslovakia in 1968, or Reagan do when Solidarity was crushed?
Mature leaders, they accepted militarily what they could not prevent.
Like those presidents, Obama should take the military option off the table and use his diplomatic, political and economic weapons, and keep communications open. There are big issues, like terrorism, where we still agree.