Obama’s Indirect Message to Putin: “You Behaved Really Badly, But You Get To Keep Crimea”

WASHINGTON – Obama’s March 26 speech at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels included a good, almost elegant and historically appropriate description of what characterizes Western societies. They are built on the principles of popular sovereignty and equal justice for all citizens. The President did a good job in pointing how these principles unite America and Europe and how the need to preserve them was and is at the foundation of strong transatlantic ties and of NATO, a defensive alliance.

America and Europe are united

This historic presentation provided a good background to explain why we –America and Europe now as always standing together– are so strongly opposed to Russia’s open aggression in Ukraine –an aggression that ended up with the military occupation and finally annexation of Crimea.

Because of our principles and strongly held beliefs –Obama argued– we oppose aggression and we want to help the Ukrainians who want to build a new society based on freedom, good governance and friendship with Europe and the West.

Obama also repeated the warnings he had already issued to Putin. The gist is:“You better watch your step. If you keep going on this road of aggression and mischief, there will be a much heavier price to pay in the form of stronger economic sanctions and total isolation.”

Good speech?

So, what do you say? Good speech? Did Obama manage to successfully articulate what’s at stake here and –most importantly– why Western resolve and unity in opposing Russian aggression is absolutely essential? Was this the needed powerful exhortation that really strengthened transatlantic unity on how to handle this crisis?

A lecture, not a speech

Not really. Obama delivered a good academic lecture, with the detachment of an academic. There was no passion. On the contrary, I detected a lack of deep conviction on the part of an American leader known for his stirring oratory. It looks as if Obama spoke for the record; but not from his heart. This was not a speech delivered by the Leader of the Western World in a moment of crisis.

Indeed, Obama’s tone was mild, the choice of words clearly meant to signal to Moscow that America will not respond militarily to the annexation of Crimea. No hint that anything even remotely muscular is in the offing.

And Obama repeated some of the same points during his subsequent visit to Rome, right before his joint press conference with Matteo Renzi, Italy’s Prime Minister.

We are done

Reading between the lines: here is the juice. “Russia behaved badly. We strongly condemn the annexation of Crimea. However, beyond some mild and mostly symbolic punitive measures targeting a few people in Russia, we shall do nothing more. In fact, when the Ukrainians asked us for military help, we gave them Meals Ready to Eat (MREs), military rations. And my ”MRE Doctrine” condenses US strategy regarding aggression as we go forward: we give food, not weapons to countries facing Russian threats. So, our message to Moscow is clear: we do not intend to engage. You, naughty boys, get to keep Crimea. We may revisit this lukewarm response only if you keep at it by stirring more trouble in Eastern Ukraine, in Moldova or Estonia. Yet, for the moment, we are done”.

Putin: “I won”

If I were Vladimir Putin I would conclude that, despite a few small bumps, all is well.“For the moment –Putin reflects–I lost Ukraine (but I may get to revisit this at a later date). However, I got Crimea and this pleased my home audience beyond my wildest expectations. My popularity shot up. My favorables are up to 80% in recent polls. I am doing great. And I know the Europeans. They want to do business with us. In no time everything will be back to normal. As for America, despite the rantings of old John McCain and a couple of his friends in the Senate, nothing to worry about. They have health care reform fights and other silly nonsense to keep them occupied. Besides, just days before we had our chance in Crimea, the Pentagon announced deep cuts to the American Army. The Americans are broke, and looking at all the polls, they have no longer any will to fight. The political message I get is clear: America is in terminal retreat.”

Siemens’ CEO goes to Moscow

Well, just to confirm Putin’s analysis about Europe’s leanings, Joe Kaeser, the CEO of Siemens, the German technology giant, thought it appropriate to choose this very moment to go and visit Putin in Russia, in order to reaffirm Siemens’ commitment to its beloved Russian customers and business partners.

Business as usual

If nothing else, the incredibly bad timing of this trip to Moscow indicates how much Siemens, a major multinational that has huge operations in the US, cares about the “optics” of this visit. Obama just finished saying that we –Europeans and Americans– now stand united in condemning Russia and the CEO of Siemens chooses this very moment to go and pay his respects to Putin. Talk about a slap in the face. And I am sure that CEO Kaeser did this having calculated that there would be no price to pay.

I suspect that this truly regrettable visit encapsulates how strongly most European business leaders with interests in Russia feel about Crimea. Most of them couldn’t care less.

Money has no smell

And what about the moral opprobrium for major corporations openly doing business with nasty autocrats? Not to worry. As the cynical (but realistic) Romans used to say, “Pecunia non olet“:”Money has no smell”.

Sad but true.


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