Should Russias invasion and looming annexation of Crimea be blamed on President Barack Obama? Of course not, just as it should not be blamed on NATO expansion, the Iraq war or Western interventions to stop mass atrocities in the Balkans and Libya. The blame lies squarely with Vladimir V. Putin, an unreconstructed Russian imperialist and KGB apparatchik.
But in a broader sense, Crimea has exposed the disturbing lack of realism that has characterized our foreign policy under Obama. It is this worldview, or lack of one, that must change.
For five years, Americans have been told that the tide of war is receding, that we can pull back from the world at little cost to our interests and values. This has fed a perception that America is weak, and to people like Putin, weakness is provocative.
That is how Putin viewed the reset policy. United States missile defense plans were scaled back. Allies in Eastern Europe and Georgia were undercut. NATO enlargement was tabled. A new strategic arms reduction treaty required significant cuts by America, but not Russia. Putin gave little. Obama promised more flexibility.
Putin also saw a lack of resolve in Obamas actions beyond Europe. In Afghanistan and Iraq, military decisions have appeared driven more by a desire to withdraw than to succeed. Defense budgets have been slashed based on hope, not strategy. Iran and China have bullied Americas allies at no discernible cost. Perhaps worst of all, Bashar Assad crossed Obamas red line by using chemical weapons in Syria, and nothing happened to him.
For Putin, vacillation invites aggression. His world is a brutish, cynical place, where power is worshiped, weakness is despised, and all rivalries are zero-sum. He sees the fall of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century. He does not accept that Russias neighbors, least of all Ukraine, are independent countries. To him, they are Russias near abroad and must be brought back under its dominion by any means necessary.
What is most troubling about Putins aggression in Crimea is that it reflects a growing disregard for Americas credibility in the world. That has emboldened other aggressive actors from Chinese nationalists to al-Qaida terrorists and Iranian theocrats.
Crimea must be the place where Obama recognizes this reality and begins to restore Americas credibility as a world leader. This will require two different kinds of responses.
The first, and most urgent, is crisis management. We need to work with our allies to shore up Ukraine, reassure shaken friends in Eastern Europe and the Baltic States, show Putin a strong, united front, and prevent the crisis from getting worse.
This does not mean military action against Russia. But it should mean sanctioning Russian officials, isolating Russia internationally and increasing NATOs military presence and exercises on its eastern frontier. It should mean boycotting the Group of 8 summit in Sochi and convening the Group of 7 elsewhere. It should also mean making every effort to support and resupply Ukrainian patriots, both soldiers and civilians, who are standing their ground in government facilities across Crimea. They refuse to accept the dismemberment of their country. So should we.
Crimea may be falling under Russian control, but Ukraine has another chance for freedom, rule of law and a European future. To seize that opportunity, Ukrainian leaders must unify the nation and commit to reform, and the West must provide significant financial and other assistance. Bipartisan legislation now before Congress would contribute to this effort.
More broadly, we must rearm ourselves morally and intellectually to prevent the darkness of Putins world from befalling more of humanity. We may wish to believe, as Obama has said, that we are not in competition with Russia. But Putin believes Russia is in competition with us, and pretending otherwise is an unrealistic basis for a great nations foreign policy.
Three American presidents have sought to cooperate with Putin where our interests converge. What should be clear now is that our interests do not converge much. He will always insist on being our rival.
The United States must look beyond Putin. His regime may appear imposing, but it is rotting inside. His Russia is not a great power on par with America. It is a gas station run by a corrupt, autocratic regime. And eventually, Russians will come for Putin in the same way and for the same reasons that Ukrainians came for Viktor F. Yanukovych.
We must prepare for that day now. We should show the Russian people that we support their human rights by expanding the Magnitsky Act to impose more sanctions on those who abuse them. We should stop allowing their countrys most corrupt officials to park ill-gotten proceeds in Western economies. We should prove that countries like Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova have a future in the Euro-Atlantic community, and Russia can, too.
We must do all we can to demonstrate that the tide of history is with Ukraine that the political values of the West, and not those of an imperial kleptocracy, are the hope of all nations. If Ukraine can emerge from this crisis independent, prosperous and anchored firmly in Europe, how long before Russians begin to ask, Why not us? That would not just spell the end of Putins imperial dreams; it would strip away the lies that sustain his rule over Russia itself.
Americas greatest strength has always been its hopeful vision of human progress. But hopes do not advance themselves, and the darkness that threatens them will not be checked by an America in denial about the world as it is. It requires realism, strength and leadership. If Crimea does not awaken us to this fact, I am afraid to think what will.
New York Times News Service
John McCain is a Republican senator from Arizona.