It was interesting to watch the journalistic gymnastics unfold last week concerning what the United States could and should do about Russia's incursion into Ukraine. The answer should be pretty apparent: not much.
For those who may not follow international news, Ukraine was convulsed during the past month by violent protests that finally led to the ouster of the country's Russian-backed leader. Russia has responded by sending troops into the Crimean region of Ukraine, where much of the population is Russian-speaking and pro-Russia politically. In addition to the ethnic ties, Russia has a naval base in Crimea and considers the Crimean peninsula strategically important to its own national defense.
The U.S. has a different strategic interest in Ukraine, wishing to see it strengthen its trading and political ties with Western Europe. The ouster of Ukraine's Russian-backed president clearly served that interest.
President Obama responded to news of the Russian military incursion with a remarkably tepid statement, for which Fox News commentator Charles Krauthammer and others on the right excoriated him. The president said he was "deeply concerned" and that "The United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine."
What costs, you may ask? The administration says the United States may boycott the G-8 summit scheduled to be held in Sochi this summer.
From the Russian perspective that's like a disagreeable in-law uninviting himself from Thanksgiving dinner, but really, do people expect Obama to sink a couple of Russian destroyers over this? There just aren't many options.
Similarly strange was the CNN coverage of the issue Saturday afternoon. The network seemed to be in full war reporting mode, first breathlessly announcing that the National Security Council had met on the issue Saturday and later, with some apparent disappointment, reporting that President Obama had not himself attended the meeting. Again, it's as if they expected stealth bombers to be enroute.
The one troubling reality the Ukraine situation does underscore is how much Russian President Vladimir Putin enjoys thumbing his nose at President Obama, as he did when he recalled the Russian ambassador over the weekend in response to Obama's tepid scolding.
Putin can and does take Obama lightly after rolling him in Syria. Obama backed down from his promise to punish Syrian President and Russian proxy Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict. He called off a punitive cruise missile strike that likely would have led to Assad's overthrow by rebel forces. Instead he signed off on a bogus, Russian-brokered agreement for Syria to destroy its chemical weapons stockpile. The Syrians, after destroying less than five percent of their chemical stockpile, are now stonewalling on further compliance.
Obama's loss of face in Syria did of course give Putin a huge boost in influence in the Middle East, where the U.S. does have a lot at stake strategically. So it comes as little surprise that Putin has no compunction about belittling our objections to Russian misbehavior in a place like Ukraine.