Ukraine crisis: Tripping over red lines

Even if the current crisis in Ukraine subsides, Vladimir Putin is likely to keep pushing, sensing a lack of purpose in a White House that always wimps out in its worldview.
UPDATED ON MAR 08, 2014 02:39 AM IST

Even if the current crisis in Ukraine subsides, Vladimir Putin is likely to keep pushing, sensing a lack of purpose in a White House that always wimps out in its worldview.

It’s truly edifying how my social media timelines started buzzing with wisdom about Crimea. I would have thought that most people wouldn’t be able to identify it on a map. I couldn’t claim to, until recently. But a rash of expertise has broken out in the world of armchair analysts, though, I’ll conjecture, many had long presumed Crimea was something you would slather on a bagel. Or, if of a poetic disposition, may have gleaned of its existence in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s epic The Charge of the Light Brigade.

That came during the Battle of Balaclava, some 160 years in the past. That battle, of course, popularised the balaclava, used then by the British forces and now by protestors, anarchists, and small children in India protesting against being forced to wear them in their avatar of the monkey cap.

Interestingly, the British commander during that conflict was Lord Raglan, and the light cavalry was led by Lord Cardigan. Somehow a bunch of sartorial touches showed up there. At this time, Crimea is wearing upon, if not wearying, the world.

But Russia’s control of Crimea, and its ardent gaze upon Ukraine are hardly confounding. Russian President Vladimir Putin can exert his influence while the United States gets reduced from globocop to kindergarten cop.

The Obama Administration was seeking a ‘reset’ with Russia and they have it. In this great game, the reset and match have so far gone to the Kremlin. After troops seized Ukrainian territory, Obama was visiting preschoolers at the Powell Elementary School in Washington, DC to talk about his government’s annual budget.

And on another now-ignored theatre, Iran, he told a Bloomberg interviewer that the “all options on the table” stance remained in place. To that Iranian General Masoud Jazayeri scoffed that “this phrase is mocked at and has become a joke among the Iranian nation, especially the children.” Certainly, dealing with Putin is not child’s play since the Russian president has quickly pivoted from the winter Olympic games to war games.

In 2008, as then US senator Barack Obama was campaigning towards the presidency, Russia occupied parts of Georgia, the country, not the American state. Obama’s campaign spun that incursion as one provoked by Georgia even his rival John McCain went ballistic. McCain’s running mate Sarah Palin warned, “After the Russian army invaded the nation of Georgia, Senator Obama’s reaction was one of indecision and moral equivalence, the kind of response that would only encourage Russia’s Putin to invade Ukraine next.”

She got sniggered at by the smart set. Meanwhile, in 2012, as Republican nominee Mitt Romney was going red in the face over Russia, Obama quipped that “the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.”

With Putin showing signs of obliging with exactly that, complete with Cold War-era moves, perhaps we are in rewind mode and face the threat of an outbreak of boom boxes and break dancing. Either the army of analysts and Administration apparatchiks were blind or wearing blinkers to have missed the signs, flashing like the neon in Times Square. As Moscow tested an intercontinental ballistic missile, this was a blast from the past.

Russia has already outmanoeuvred America on Syria. As with Jennifer Lawrence tripping on the red carpet at the Oscars, the American president has been tripping over his red lines wherever he sets them, Syria or Ukraine. In both instances, American hustle isn’t quite a winner.

Even if the current crisis subsides, Putin is likely to keep pushing, sensing a lack of purpose in a White House that always wimps out in its worldview.

Still, America’s global might, military and economic, can hardly be overstated. It might take two to tangle with Washington. And with Russia and China inching closer, that feat, of a return to a bipolar world a quarter century after the Soviet empire expired, may be on the cards. Most of which, it appears, Putin seems to be holding.

Currently based in Toronto, Anirudh Bhattacharyya has been a New York-based foreign correspondent for eight years
The views expressed by the author are personal

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