Obama Tried to Paint Russia as Acting Out of Weakness, But Russia Is No Paper Tiger

Obama in The Hague
U.S. President Barack Obama addresses during the closing news conference of the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague March 25, 2014. Francois Lenoir/Reuters

It's hard to remember that Barack Obama came to national attention as a silver-tongued orator, an eloquent writer in an age when most politicians spew God-awful prose concocted by their aides. But when Obama offered remarks in the Netherlands about Russia and Crimea on Tuesday, his words were a mess.

When Jonathan Karl of ABC News asked if Mitt Romney was right to call Russia the "No. 1 geopolitical foe" for the United States, Obama dismissed the charge, noting that the world is a "messy place" and saying he's more worried about a nuclear weapon being smuggled into Manhattan.

Fair enough. But then he went to a weird place: "With respect to Mr. Romney's assertion that Russia's our No. 1 geopolitical foe, the truth of the matter is that, you know, America's got a whole lot of challenges. Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors—not out of strength but out of weakness."

To some extent, Obama is right. Russia is not a prosperous global economic and military power like the U.S., but it's not merely a regional power either. Russia's expanse across eight time zones suggests otherwise. It projects naval power from Vladivostok, on the Sea of Japan, to Murmansk on the Arctic Ocean. It has nukes. It's not Venezuela. True, Russia is never again going to have an ideology the world might follow. Marx and Lenin had global appeal. Putin doesn't.

But that doesn't make the KGB-trained leader even remotely weak. Under Putin, the Russian Federation is, we now know, willing to seize sovereign territory, crack down on human rights and use its petro-economy to bully its neighbors. To try and pooh-pooh that as "weakness" is both an incitement to a Moscow bent on restoring its national greatness and an insult to a Europe that knows better. Obama's policies thus far have been more measured and reflect a bipartisan consensus that the U.S. should put heat on the Russians through sanctions and make it clear that, aside from bolstering NATO allies, no military action is being contemplated.

Maybe calling Russia weak is some kind of psychological warfare, but if it is, it's not working. It's not hurting Putin internally, as best we can tell. Panic isn't the alternative. Instead, making it clear to Russia and America's allies that this will be, as the Cold War was once dubbed, a long twilight struggle that won't be won in a day makes more sense than dismissing Russia as a weak sister.

In one of his odder lines, Obama said that Russia will always have an interest in Ukraine, "just as we're bound to our neighbors, and you know, we have considerable influence on our neighbors. We generally don't need to invade them in order to have a strong cooperative relationship with them."

That line is arch, but it doesn't really make sense here. Putin is not going to look at our genial ties with Bermuda and conclude that we have a point. In the Russian mind, it's always 1941 and "fascist" aggressors are always at the gate. The constant invocation of Nazis and putsches on Russian television last month was no coincidence.

Obama avoided what might be called the Gerald Ford trap. The 39th president in a 1976 debate seemed to say that the U.S. recognized the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe—a gaffe that helped him lose the election to Jimmy Carter. Obama has wisely avoided that pitfall, but he needs to find a new vocabulary for addressing the age of Putin. Calling Russia "regional" and "weak" seems, well, weak.