It was much the same when Putin responded forcibly to Georgian provocation in August 2008. President Bush reacted by decisively going on vacation. Karl Rove now claims the White House sent Putin a strong message -- probably dropped him from the Christmas card list or something.
These things happened because whatever the testosterone levels of U.S. presidents, Russia is what we scholars of international affairs call a very big bleeping country, with a big bleeping army. President Obama can make light of Russian military prowess all he wants, but he also knows that Napoleon and Hitler sent superior armies into Russia that never came back.
Ukrainian officials are fools if they imagine that the U.S. or NATO will help them fight a civil war where no member’s vital national interests are involved. Alas, the kinds of extreme right-wing nationalists who decked out public buildings in Kiev with fascist regalia and passed laws (since withdrawn) removing Russian as an “official” language are all too prone to folly.
These and similar provocations have been all but censored in U.S. media even as they’re wildly exaggerated in Moscow. What’s also unclear is exactly how much control Putin has over Russian-speaking militias occupying public buildings in eastern Ukraine -- maybe a lot less than some imagine.
Either way, the last thing anybody needs there is heroes.
(Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.)