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Look back a bit on what has just happened in Ukraine and Crimea. During the weekend of February 22-23, Ukrainians replaced leaders who ordered snipers to fire on them in Kiev. Four days later, on February 27, Russian military forces moved to occupy the Crimean peninsula. Timeline: How the crisis in Ukraine unfolded contains details.

Now remember the mood coming out of Washington during those critical days. At the start, we have the usual smugness of amateurs full of themselves: yukety yuk yuk, look at Putin – he just spent fifty billion plus on the Sochi Winter Olympics to impress all of us. Now look at him, the freedom fighters in Kiev have thrown the man back on his heels! Let the Russian grizzly nurse its bloody nose!

One week after the victory in Kiev, things don’t look so great. Russia has its troops all over Crimea. It has control of the regional government. Putin says he has to protect the Russians there. Washington says, “Wait one second here! You can’t do that. Get your troops out of there, or we’ll impose sanctions.” Putin repeats the standard excuse that he has to protect Russians. He doesn’t have to add, “You want me to get out of Crimea? Make me.”

Crimean peninsula. Cities marked with white and red show Russian troop concentrations.

Here’s something interesting about the crew in Washington. From appearances, Putin’s move into Crimea took them entirely by surprise. They seemed entirely unprepared for it. In fact, Putin’s move was surprising. He didn’t have a lot of options when Viktor Yanukovych had to get out of Dodge. Most people would not have judged occupation of Crimea as an attractive or a feasible plan. Why would you want to make trouble like that? No one in Kiev was talking about taking on the Russian Black Sea fleet. The new leaders of Ukraine had enough other problems on their minds.

Vladimir Putin

So we have to see Putin’s move as opportunistic, timed to reacquire Crimea at a moment when people would notice, but no one would do anything about it. Sochi’s impresario applied the principle, never let a good crisis go to waste. Significantly, the occupation of Crimea required some preparation. You cannot mobilize thousands of troops to occupy 10,000 square miles, take over the provincial government, and face down Ukrainian armed forces without thinking in advance about how to do it. Putin accomplished the whole mission in a couple of days, leaving Washington dumbfounded.


Map of Ukraine to show balance of Ukrainian and Russian speakers in different regions of the country.

You have to ask here, where was the vaunted and unparelleled U. S. intelligence system when we needed it? Perhaps we spent too much energy helping the Brits spy on their own citizens via their webcams. How could we not have any idea, through the long Ukrainian crisis, that Putin might take advantage of it? Ukraine has been in turmoil since November 21, a week before Thanksgiving. We had enough time during the long crisis to dismiss our western allies – consider this jewel, “Fuck the EU,” – but we didn’t have enough time to figure out what Russia might do. Do these people in Washington even care what their adversaries are thinking?

What is clear is that Washington’s foreign policymakers don’t have a clear or coherent strategy. They address each crisis one at a time. They draw red lines that don’t matter. They’re accommodating when they should be firm; they bluff when they should be direct; they have minimal leadership and no vision. Signals are so mixed now that no one can tell whether we want to lead or not. The first job of a leader is to listen. We don’t even bother to do that, let alone any of the other things leaders are supposed to do.

Here we are, then, wondering what to do now that Russia has moved to annex Crimea. Everything we do appears improvised, because it is. Improvisation is a great form of comedy, but it’s not funny in foreign policy. It’s ineffective, and it makes you wonder what could possibly be next. It makes you wish for leaders who possess some basic competence. It especially makes you wish for leaders who care about their country’s interests, who have given a little thought to what those interests are. We do not want leaders like Putin, but at least he knows what he wants.

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