Few should be surprised by Putin's behavior in Ukraine. After all, protecting Russian-speaking communities abroad is part of official Russian strategic doctrine. Defending vital military facilities like those in Crimea (where Russia has been the de facto sovereign power for years) is as natural for Russia as considering Abkhazia and South Ossetia part of Russian territory. Given Putin's past behavior during the Georgian war of 2008, and with Moscow having vital stakes in Ukraine's future, the current troops movements are exactly what to be expected from Putin.
What is more startling, however, is how ill-prepared Washington and many European capitals appear to be in the face of Russia's ongoing aggressions. Judged by the response so far, it seems the West has been caught off guard ever since the unfolding of the crisis in Ukraine a couple of months ago. A central part of the West's challenge is that Washington and European capitals are without real tools to prevent Russia's current actions in Ukraine. President Obama's reluctance so far to lead and take a firm stand thus probably says more about the West than it does about Putin's approach.
Washington's repeated warnings about "costs" and "serious consequences" will continue to be shrugged off by Moscow until they can be backed up by a credible U.S. and NATO threat. The West must inflict real pain on Russia for Putin to back off now. Such a threat is currently non-existent -- and Putin knows this. Indeed, he has learned the vital lesson from Syria; namely, that Obama is not willing to enforce his own red lines. Obama may speak loudly on occasion, but he always carries with him a very small stick.
No surprise here. Obama's lack of leadership during the entire Ukraine crisis is not accidental. In fact, it has a lot to do with broader U.S. strategic interests in the world. From the beginning, Obama's foreign policy has been structurally designed to avoid confrontation with other major powers such as Russia and China. Instead of fretting over differences with Moscow, the White House has opted for a "realist foreign policy" based on cooperation with Russia on common goals in Syria and Iran. The U.S. needs Russia to control Assad's behavior and Iran's temptation to pursue its nuclear plans. Additionally, the START II Treaty is key to Obama's personal non-proliferation ambitions. Russia will also be important in managing Afghanistan as NATO troops withdraws from there at the end of this year.
Signs that Washington is backtracking from its long-held aspirations of maintaining such a working relationship with Moscow are now emerging, however. Although the U.S.-Russian "re-set" has been effectively dead for years, U.S.-Russian relations will inevitably unravel as the current crisis over Ukraine continues. But as demonstrated over and over again in the past, mere U.S. rhetoric will do little to change Putin's behavior.
The crux of the matter is that short of a NATO military threat, there is little the U.S. and its European allies can do to stop Putin from advancing further. What the West can do, however, is too modify Moscow's calculations, making it more costly for Putin to keep the conflict in Ukraine going. But in order to succeed with this, a united transatlantic front is a must. Key to this will be the special position of Germany. As the only major European power with special links to Moscow, somewhat strong links with the Ukrainian opposition, a good relationship with Washington (despite the latest NSA scandal), and tremendous influence in the EU, Germany can play a key diplomatic role.
This brings us back to the issue of U.S. leadership in Europe. Throughout his presidency, Barack Obama has shown little interest in getting involved in European affairs. His administration has stayed away from seeking to influence the European debate on the Eurocrisis, and it has effectively frozen NATO's enlargement process in the East. The U.S. must now lead the West in a strong, united approach against Russia, and put pressure on Germany to be a constructive player in this regard.
There are now signs that Obama's hitherto tolerant stance on Russia may be coming to an end. The Ukraine crisis illustrates the need for the Obama administration to pivot back to Europe. The U.S. and its EU partners need a common approach going forward. This includes, at a very minimum, agreeing on how to handle the G8 summit (Germany has still not decided whether its attending the meeting; in fact, Foreign Minister Steinmeier has also cautioned against expelling Russia from the club). Washington must here push Berlin not to block such an approach.
Moreover, the U.S. must push European countries (including Germany) to take further measures such as banishing Russia from the G8 and canceling the country's candidacy to the OECD. It should also impose tough visa restrictions and asset freezes against key Russian leaders and threaten to isolate Russia's trade and investment relationships overseas. Washington must here push Berlin not to block such an approach. In the long run, the regime change in Ukraine also raises the expectations of future membership in the EU once Kiev fulfills all the criteria to join.
Ultimately, what we are witnessing in Ukraine is a major deterioration of the post-Cold War order in Europe. No one really expects the U.S. or NATO to fight over Ukraine. But the West must not back away either, letting Putin have his way. Next in line could be neighboring Moldova or, further away, Georgia. A forceful Western response is therefore called for. But for this to succeed, Washington must be in the driver's seat and not lead from behind. And Germany must be a strong European counterpart as well.
In sum, the Russian perception of Obama's hesitation in front of a major security crisis gives an extra strength to Putin's aggressive resolve. But whether it wants to or not, the U.S. is still a leading player in Europe. Being a superpower means acting with wise leadership and to exercise the power that comes along with this position. That is what is needed in Ukraine right now. Same thing goes for Germany. Whether it wants to or not, Germany is now the leading European player on the continent. It is high time it also begins to act like one. This is precisely what Obama needs to ensure in the next few critical days.