Tilting at windbags

WASHINGTON — I had no idea so many Republicans were nostalgic for the Cold War. President Obama should dust off the zinger he used in a campaign debate against Mitt Romney: “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.”

Poor Mitt. It seems he never got over Obama’s putdown of his view that Russia is the “number-one geopolitical foe” of the United States. Since Russia’s seizure of the Crimean Peninsula from neighboring Ukraine, Romney has been crowing “told you so.”

Other hawkish GOP luminaries, either out of ideology or opportunism, are loudly echoing Romney’s criticism. Speaking of hawks, Sen. John McCain of Arizona accused the president of conducting a “feckless” foreign policy. And speaking of opportunists, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said the United States has “receded from leadership” in the world and speculated that Russian President Vladimir Putin is “openly laughing” at Obama.

I think it’s much more likely that Putin finds humor in all the armchair generals who fail to suggest a single course of action that would have prevented him from snatching Crimea — or a course of action that would make him give it back. Loud, content-free bluster can be amusing.

Obama’s words and actions matter, however, and his handling of the Ukraine crisis has been firm, steady and realistic. These are not the 1980s and this is not the Cold War. I believe most Americans realize this, and perhaps someday the hawkish wing of the Republican Party will catch up.

I do take exception to one of Obama’s rhetorical flourishes: He called Russia a “regional power.” I believe that if a country has thousands of nuclear weapons, along with the intercontinental ballistic missiles needed to deliver them to any point on the globe, then by definition it qualifies as more than a regional power. Russia’s military hardware may be based on aging technology, but there’s still quite a lot of it.

Whenever U.S. astronauts need to get to and from the International Space Station, they have to hitch rides on Russian spacecraft. Russia is still a major force to be reckoned with in the world — beyond Europe’s reliance dependence on Russian natural gas — and pretending otherwise doesn’t help the situation in Ukraine.

In fact, I think, it may hurt. Putin’s approval rating at home has soared to 80 percent, and I believe one reason is that he skillfully stokes feelings of resentment at the way Russia has been treated since the end of the Cold War. In Putin’s version of history, the West has been triumphalist and aggressive. We don’t see it this way, but we should understand by now that nationalism warps perceptions — the Russians’ and perhaps our own.

Despite the “regional power” dig, Obama seems to understand this dynamic. From the beginning, his escalating response has been designed to offer Putin a face-saving “offramp” in the unlikely event he decides to back down.

At the same time, Obama has had to be realistic. The Russian annexation of Crimea is illegal and, as Obama has promised, will never be recognized by the United States and most other nations. However, it is unlikely to be reversed.

The question is what happens next. Putin has spoken of the need to “defend” Russian speakers in other parts of eastern Ukraine, as tens of thousands of Russian troops have apparently massed near the border. U.S. policy has to be designed to prevent further territorial seizures — in Ukraine or in the other countries that form part of what Moscow considers the “near abroad.”

Obama has bolstered the provisional government in Kiev — including with an $18 billion International Monetary Fund loan, announced Thursday, that will avert a potential fiscal crisis. His measured approach has kept all the European powers on board and even convinced China to abstain on a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the Crimea takeover.

Is all this enough to keep Putin from grabbing more Ukrainian territory? I don’t know. But the alternative that critics propose — talking tougher, pounding the table, perhaps sending some token military assistance to Kiev — would do no better, and potentially could do much worse.

As even McCain admits, there is no military response to Crimea. As even Romney acknowledges, Russia will pursue what it sees as its own national interests. As Cruz apparently doesn’t quite understand, nobody wants another Cold War.

If Putin is laughing, it’s at the windbags who want Obama to replace serious policy with empty threats.

Eugene Robinson is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is eugenerobinson@washpost.com.

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