Russia’s deployment to Syria — and its decision to bomb almost exclusively — more moderate Syrians and those who have received U.S. assistance has thrown down the gauntlet. It’s not just a matter of Syria, anymore. Vladimir Putin is showing the world President Obama’s impotence, and convincing every U.S. ally across the globe from Egypt to Estonia and from Kenya to Korea that they would have to be crazy to cast their lot with the United States.
Putin has pushed the line repeatedly and received little resistance, beyond a cute plastic button offered by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Russian forces invaded Georgia without consequence. They cheated on the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and faced no consequence. Indeed, Ellen Tauscher, the chief U.S. negotiator of the subsequent “New START” Treaty and a top Hillary Clinton aide, ended up going into partnership with a Kremlin-funded think tank while at the Atlantic Council. No wonder that, with such lack of seriousness emanating from Washington, Putin figured he could get away with murder in the Ukraine. To date, the Kremlin has faced little consequence for its actions beyond a smattering of sanctions. In the process of these outrages, Moscow demonstrated that the Budapest Memorandum in which the United States, among others, gave Kiev security guarantees wasn’t worth the paper it was written on.
There’s an irony here, of course, when it comes to the White House conception of credibility: Obama’s team shrugged off commitments to the Ukraine by insisting that the Budapest Memorandum was an agreement and not a treaty and so wasn’t sacrosanct. However, talk about walking away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the so-called Iran deal, which is an agreement and not a treaty, and the White House and State Department insists that its terms must be observed with the entirety of U.S. credibility at stake.
Regardless, what is clear is that the White House has consistently misjudged Putin. There are two possibilities as to why Obama and Kerry fell into Putin’s trap: Either there has been a massive intelligence failure at the Central Intelligence Agency with regard to Putin’s outlook and intentions, or Obama and Kerry simply ignored what they were being told. Either way, in an atmosphere where accountability mattered, there would be resignations, either at the CIA or at the top of the State Department.
So what to do to restore credibility? There really is no option other than the military: Russian planes bomb targets close to those forces aligned with the United States? Then U.S. forces should bomb Syrian targets close to the Assad regime. A U.S. general in Iraq might give the Russian embassy there an hour’s notice to de-conflict. Kerry might be under the delusion that Assad can be worked with, but that simply shows how out-of-touch he is with the situation in Syria: He long ago passed the point of no return. Assad’s presence in Syria has become the chief recruiting tool for the Islamic State.
At the same time, it’s essential to arm the Ukrainians with enough lethal goods to help them roll back Russian proxies and send Russian forces home in body bags. That might not be the style of diplomacy to which Obama and Kerry adhere, but both are naïve if they think diplomacy means simply talking at the table absent any leverage or the threat of worse to come. Putin must realize that there is real cost to his course of action. If he isn’t stopped in Syria, ultimately he will have to be stopped in the Baltics, and that will be a far more tragic outcome for all sides.