Today’s news from Ukraine is grim. It’s increasingly clear that Putin believes he has an opportunity to move in the Crimea, and perhaps to take eastern portions of Ukraine for Russia, while destabilizing the new government in Kiev. So far the American reaction has been pathetically weak: a few words from Kerry and Obama but no action. Not even diplomatic action like a UN Security Council session or a meeting of the NATO Council, or a Kerry visit to Kiev.
The administration’s inaction and Putin’s aggressive conduct may teach some lessons: that the Obama administration seeks above all to avoid confrontations, at whatever cost; that its efforts to engage dictators and repressive regimes appear always to end in grief; that friends and foes alike see us as increasingly disengaged and weak; that this appearance of weakness tempts enemies of the United States to act. The very week that Putin acts in Ukraine is the week when the Obama administration unveils its plan for the smallest U.S. Army since the Second World War.
Those who are wondering whether we need to pass sanctions legislation now and put more pressure on Iran should take all this into account. Like Putin, the ayatollahs likely see our failure to act in Syria (indeed our willingness to be "rescued" from action by Putin) as a sign that they can drive a hard bargain indeed with us over their nuclear weapons program, giving up nearly nothing and getting sanctions relief. And now they see us reacting (so far) to Russian aggression in Ukraine, sending troops across the border into the Crimea, with tut-tutting.
The administration’s argument against the proposed Iran sanctions legislation should be reconsidered in the light of today’s news. The Iranians across the negotiating table from us are following Ukraine closely, and judging our country’s willingness to resist when international law is violated--as Putin is violating it today and Iran has been violating it for years. This would be a very good time for Congress to pass the Menendez-Kirk legislation, promising more sanctions if Iran violates pledges it has made and moves toward a bomb. One lesson of events in Ukraine is that relying on the good will of repressive, anti-American regimes is foolish and dangerous. Another is that American strength and strength of will are weakened at the peril of the United States and our friends everywhere.