Charles Krauthammer
On Russia, Ukraine & the threat posed by Vladimir Putin

 

Charles Krauthammer wrote and spoke on topics that covered the entire spectrum of political debate. But there is perhaps no area where he brought greater expertise to bear than on U.S. foreign policy and its vital role in the course of world history. 

 

The world is rightfully shocked at the horrors of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, but this was not an unforeseeable event. For years, Charles Krauthammer warned of the rising threat posed by Putin’s unchecked aggression, and the vital need for a more clear-eyed and forceful American response, lest we realize the danger too late.

Reassure NATO that it's going to stop with Ukraine…. Announce that any further step of Putin into the rest of Ukraine, we will immediately, favorably consider requests for weapons and trainers on the ground…. order the EPA to consider the 24 pending applications for liquid and natural gas exports, and to expedite and have a verdict within six weeks…. re-do the defense budget as a way to increase it, rather than cutting it back. That will be a lesson for the long run, and the Russians will be hurt by it.

— "Russian aggression in Ukraine must end with Crimea," Fox News, December 20, 2015

"How to Stop — or Slow — Putin" (2014)

The alternative to passivity is not war but a serious foreign policy. For the past five years, Obama’s fruitless accommodationism has invited the kind of aggressiveness demonstrated by Iran in Syria, China in the East China Sea and Russia in Ukraine. But what’s done is done. Put that aside. What is to be done now?

 

We have three objectives. In ascending order of difficulty: Reassure NATO. Deter further Russian incursion into Ukraine. Reverse the annexation of Crimea.

The Washington Post, March 13, 2014

These sanctions are a joke. There are real sanctions we can impose … on the energy sector, which is the source of all their wealth, and … on the banks.

The next step would be, can be, might be an attack on the rest of eastern Ukraine. And there is nothing that Obama has done that would in any way dissuade Putin.

"Russian sanctions are a joke," Fox News, December 20, 2015

"A Foreign Policy of Denial" (2014)

That means weaponry, Mr. President. It was the beginning of the Truman Doctrine. No one is claiming that arming Ukraine would have definitively deterred Putin’s current actions. But the possibility of a bloody and prolonged Ukrainian resistance to infiltration or invasion would surely alter Putin’s calculus more than Obama’s toothless sanctions or empty diplomatic gestures, like the preposterous Geneva agreement that wasn’t worth the paper it was written on.

Or does Obama really believe that Putin’s thinking would be altered less by antitank and antiaircraft weapons in Ukrainian hands than by the State Department’s comical #UnitedforUkraine Twitter campaign?

The Washington Post, May 1, 2014

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Forward deploy NATO troops into place like the Baltics or into Poland.... That’s a way to send a message that means something and is not just hot air.

— Fox News, April 15, 2014

"The Vacant Presidency" (2014)

World opinion, by itself, is useless: malleable, ephemeral and, unless mobilized by leadership, powerless. History doesn’t act autonomously. It needs agency.…

 

Putin doesn’t give a damn about world opinion. He cares about domestic opinion, which has soared to more than 80 percent approval since Crimea. If anything, he’s been emboldened....

A real U.S. president would give Kiev the weapons it needs, impose devastating sectoral sanctions on Moscow, reinstate our Central European missile-defense system and make a Reaganesque speech explaining why.…

Obama has done none of these things. Why should he? He’s on the right side of history.

Of course, in the long run nothing lasts. But history is lived in the here and now. The Soviets had only 70 years, Hitler a mere 12. Yet it was enough to murder millions and rain ruin on entire continents. Bashar al-Assad, too, will one day go. But not before having killed at least 100,000 people.

 

All domination must end. But after how much devastation? And if you leave it to the forces of history to repel aggression and redeem injustice, what’s the point of politics, of leadership, in the first place?

 

The world is aflame and our leader is on the 14th green. The arc of history may indeed bend toward justice, Mr. President. But, as you say, the arc is long. The job of a leader is to shorten it, to intervene on behalf of “the fierce urgency of now.” Otherwise, why do we need a president? And why did you seek to become ours?

The Washington Post, July 25, 2014

Make a statement that means something.... [Putin] knows he has nothing to fear from the West because it’s not led by anybody. It used to be led by the United States.

"Everybody is shocked by the weakness of Obama's statement," Fox News, December 20, 2015

"The Wages of Weakness" (2014)

Now Russia looms over the rest of eastern and southern Ukraine. Putin can take that anytime he wants – if he wants. He has already destabilized the nationalist government in Kiev. Ukraine is now truncated and on the life support of U.S. and European money (much of which – cash for gas – will end up in Putin’s treasury anyway).

 

Obama says Putin is on the wrong side of history, and Secretary of State John Kerry says Putin’s is “really 19th- century behavior in the 21st century.”

This must mean that seeking national power, territory, dominion – the driving impulse of nations since Thucydides – is obsolete. As if a calendar change caused a revolution in human nature that transformed the international arena from a Hobbesian struggle for power into a gentleman’s club where violations of territorial integrity just don’t happen....

Can Putin be faulted for believing that if he bites off Crimea and threatens Kiev, Obama’s response will be minimal and his ability to lead the Europeans even less so?

Would Putin have lunged for Ukraine if he didn’t have such a clueless adversary? No one can say for sure. But it certainly made Putin’s decision easier.

The Washington Post, March 7, 2014

"Obama vs. Putin, the Mismatch" (2014)

The East Europeans know they inhabit the battleground between the West and a Russia that wants to return them to its sphere of influence. Ukrainians see tens of thousands of Russian troops across their border and know they are looking down the barrel of quite a zero-sum game....

 

Putin hasn’t transcended the Russian revolution. Did no one give Obama a copy of Putin’s speech last week upon the annexation of Crimea? Putin railed not only at Russia’s loss of empire in the 1990s. He went back to the 1920s: “After the revolution, the Bolsheviks . . . may God judge them, added large sections of the historical South of Russia to the Republic of Ukraine.” Putin was referring not to Crimea (which came two sentences later) but to his next potential target: Kharkiv and Donetsk and the rest of southeastern Ukraine.

 

Putin’s irredentist grievances go very deep. Obama seems unable to fathom them. Asked whether he’d misjudged Russia, whether it really is our greatest geopolitical foe, he disdainfully replied that Russia is nothing but “a regional power” acting “out of weakness.”

Where does one begin? Hitler’s Germany and Tojo’s Japan were also regional powers, yet managed to leave behind at least 50 million dead....

Indeed, Obama’s dismissal of Russia as a regional power makes his own leadership of the one superpower all the more embarrassing. For seven decades since the Japanese surrender, our role under 11 presidents had been as offshore balancer protecting smaller allies from potential regional hegemons.

What are the allies thinking now?....

America never sought the role that history gave it after World War II to bear unbidden burdens “to assure the survival and the success of liberty,” as movingly described by John Kennedy. We have an appropriate aversion to the stark fact that the alternative to U.S. leadership is either global chaos or dominance by the likes of China, Russia and Iran.

The Washington Post, March 28, 2014

"The Price of Powerlessness" (2016)

And in part because he’s convinced that in the long run it doesn’t matter. Fluctuations in great power relations are inherently ephemeral. For a man who sees a moral arc in the universe bending inexorably toward justice, calculations of raw realpolitik are 20th-century thinking – primitive, obsolete, the obsession of small minds.

Obama made all this perfectly clear in speeches at the U.N., in Cairo and here at home in his very first year in office. Two terms later, we see the result. Ukraine dismembered. Eastern Europe on edge. Syria a charnel house. Iran subsuming Iraq. Russia and Iran on the march across the entire northern Middle East.

At the heart of this disorder is a simple asymmetry. It is in worldview. The major revisionist powers – China, Russia and Iran – know what they want: power, territory, tribute. And they’re going after it. Barack Obama takes Ecclesiastes’ view that these are vanities, nothing but vanities.

In the kingdom of heaven, no doubt. Here on earth, however – Aleppo to Donetsk, Estonia to the Spratly Islands – it matters greatly.

The Washington Post, August 16, 2016

"Putin's Ukraine Gambit" (2014)

Putin’s mission is restoration. First, restore traditional Russian despotism by dismantling its nascent democracy. And then, having created iron-fisted “stability,” march....
 

What Obama doesn’t seem to understand is that American inaction creates a vacuum.... Putin fully occupies vacuums….

 

The strategic stakes: Without Ukraine, there’s no Russian empire. Putin knows that. Which is why he keeps ratcheting up the pressure. The question is, can this administration muster the counterpressure to give Ukraine a chance to breathe?

The Washington Post, February 27, 2014

Putin’s a good, well-trained KGB agent, he lies with a smile…. He’s a very good liar.

"Putin is a very good liar," Fox News, June 2, 2017

"Obama's World Falls Apart" (2015)

Why is Putin moving so quickly and so brazenly? Because he’s got only 16 more months to push on the open door that is Obama. He knows he’ll never again see an American president such as this – one who once told the General Assembly that “no one nation can or should try to dominate another nation” and told it again Monday of “believing in my core that we, the nations of the world, cannot return to the old ways of conflict and coercion.”

They cannot? Has he looked at the world around him – from Homs to Kunduz, from Sanaa to Donetsk – ablaze with conflict and coercion?

Wouldn’t you take advantage of these last 16 months if you were Putin, facing a man living in a faculty-lounge fantasy world? Where was Obama when Putin began bombing Syria? Leading a U.N. meeting on countering violent extremism.

The Washington Post, October 2, 2015

"Putin Marches, Obama Watches" (2015)

Putin’s larger strategy is also obvious. He is not reconstructing the old Soviet empire. That’s too large a task. But he is rebuilding and reasserting Russia’s ability to project power beyond its borders. Annexing Crimea restores to the motherland full control of the warm-water Black Sea port that Russia has coveted since Peter the Great. Shoring up a rump Alawite state secures Russia’s naval and air bases in the eastern Mediterranean. Add to that Russia’s launching of advanced cruise missiles from warships in the Caspian Sea to strike Syrian rebels 900 miles away and you have the most impressive display of Russian military reach since the Cold War....

“60 Minutes” asked Obama: Are you concerned about yielding leadership to Russia? Obama responded dismissively: Propping up a weak ally is not leadership. I’m leading the world on climate change.”

Upon hearing that, anyone in any conflict anywhere who has put his trust in the United States should start packing his bags for Germany.

The Washington Post, October 23, 2015

"What Six Years of 'Reset' have Wrought" (2015)

Putin invades Ukraine, annexes Crimea, breaks two Minsk cease-fire agreements and erases the Russia-Ukraine border – effectively tearing up the post-Cold War settlement of 1994. Obama’s response? Pinprick sanctions, empty threats and a continuing refusal to supply Ukraine with defensive weaponry, lest he provoke Putin....

It is true that Putin’s resentment over Russia’s lost empire long predates Obama. But for resentment to turn into revanchism – an active policy of reconquest – requires opportunity. Which is exactly what Obama’s “reset” policy has offered over the past six and a half years.

Since the end of World War II, Russia has known that what stands in the way of westward expansion was not Europe, living happily in decadent repose, but the United States as guarantor of Western security. Obama’s naivete and ambivalence have put those guarantees in question.

It began with the reset button, ostentatiously offered less than two months after Obama’s swearing-in. Followed six months later by the unilateral American cancellation of the missile shield the Poles and the Czechs had agreed to install on their territory. Again, lest Putin be upset.

By 2012, a still clueless Obama mocked Mitt Romney for saying that Russia is “without question our No. 1 geopolitical foe,” quipping oh so cleverly: “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.” After all, he explained, “the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”

Turned out it was 2015 calling. Obama’s own top officials have been retroactively vindicating Romney. Last month, Obama’s choice for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff declared that “Russia presents the greatest threat to our national security.” Two weeks ago, the retiring Army chief of staff, Raymond Odierno, called Russia our “most dangerous” military threat. Obama’s own secretary of defense has gone one better: “Russia poses an existential threat to the United States.”

Turns out the Cold War is not over either. Putin is intent on reviving it. Helped immensely by Obama’s epic misjudgment of Russian intentions, the balance of power has shifted – and America’s allies feel it.

The Washington Post, August 28, 2015

"Resisting the Revisionists" (2016)

The post-Ukraine economic sanctions have been weak; the declamatory denunciations, a mere embarrassment. They’ve only encouraged further reckless Russian behavior – the buzzing of U.S. ships, intrusions into European waters, threats to the Baltic States….

In the unlikely event of a Russian invasion of any of those territories, these troops are to act as a tripwire, triggering a full-scale war with NATO. It’s the kind of coldblooded deterrent that kept the peace in Europe during the Cold War and keeps it now along the DMZ in Korea.

In the more likely event of a “little green men” takeover attempt in, say, Estonia (about 25 percent ethnically Russian), the sort of disguised slow- motion invasion that Vladimir Putin pulled off in Crimea, the NATO deployments might be enough to thwart the aggression and call in reinforcements.

The message to Putin is clear: Yes, you’ve taken parts of Georgia and Ukraine. But they’re not NATO. That territory is sacred – or so we say.

This is a welcome development for the Balts, who are wondering whether they really did achieve irreversible independence when the West won the Cold War. Their apprehension is grounded in NATO’s flaccid response to Putin’s aggressive revanchism, particularly in Ukraine. Obama still won’t provide Ukraine with even defensive weaponry. This follows years of American accommodation of Putin, from canceling a Polish-Czech missile defense system to, most recently, openly acquiescing to Russia’s seizure of a dominant role in Syria.

And what are the East Europeans to think when they hear the presumptive presidential candidate of the party of Reagan speaking dismissively of NATO and suggesting a possible American exit?

The Washington Post, July 14, 2016

"To Die for Estonia?" (2017)

Tripwires are risky, dangerous and cynical. Yet we resort to them because parchment promises are problematic and tripwires imply automaticity. We do what we can to strengthen deterrence.

Rhetorically as well. Which is why presidents from Truman on have regularly and powerfully reaffirmed our deterrent pledge to NATO. Until Trump.

His omission was all the more damaging because of his personal history. This is a man chronically disdainful of NATO. He campaigned on its obsolescence. His inaugural address denounced American allies as cunning parasites living off American wealth and generosity. One of Trump’s top outside advisers, Newt Gingrich, says that “Estonia is in the suburbs of St. Petersburg,” as if Russian designs on the Baltic states are not at all unreasonable.

Moreover, Trump devoted much of his Brussels speech, the highlight of his first presidential trip to NATO, to berating the allies for not paying their fair share. Nothing particularly wrong with that, or new – half a century ago Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield was so offended by NATO free riding that he called for major reductions of U.S. troops in Europe.

That’s an American perennial. But if you’re going to berate, at least reassure as well. Especially given rising Russian threats and aggression. Especially given that Trump’s speech was teed up precisely for such reassurance. An administration official had spread the word that he would use the speech to endorse Article 5. And it was delivered at a ceremony honoring the first and only invocation of Article 5 – ironically enough, by the allies in support of America after 9/11.

And yet Trump deliberately, defiantly refused to simply say it: America will always honor its commitment under Article 5.

It’s not that, had Trump said the magic words, everyone would have 100 percent confidence we would strike back if Russia were to infiltrate little green men into Estonia, as it did in Crimea. But Trump’s refusal to utter those words does lower whatever probability Vladimir Putin might attach to America responding with any seriousness to Russian aggression against a NATO ally.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Sunday (without mentioning his name) that after Trump’s visit it is clear that Europe can no longer rely on others. It’s not that yesterday Europe could fully rely – and today it cannot rely at all. It’s simply that the American deterrent has been weakened. And deterrence weakened is an invitation to instability, miscalculation, provocation and worse.

And for what?

The Washington Post, June 2, 2017

"NATO Meows" (2008)

Eastern Europe understands the stakes in Georgia. It is the ultimate target. Russia's aims are clear: (1) sever South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia for incorporation into Russia; (2) bring down Georgia's pro-Western government; and (3) intimidate Eastern European countries into re-entering the Russian sphere of influence.

 

Objective No. 1 is already achieved. Georgia will never recover its provinces. They will soon be absorbed into Russia.

 

Objective No. 3 has backfired, for now. The Eastern Europeans have rallied to Georgia — and to the United States.

 

Objective No. 2 remains in the balance. Russian tanks have cut Georgia in half. Its largest port has been ransacked. Its capital is isolated. Russia shows every sign of staying in place by maintaining checkpoints and ultimate control.

The Washington Post, August 22, 2008

"How to Stop Putin" (2008)

What is to be done? Let's be real. There's nothing to be done militarily. What we can do is alter Putin's cost-benefit calculations.

 

We are not without resources. There are a range of measures to be deployed if Russia does not live up to its cease-fire commitments….

 

The most crucial and unconditional measure…is this: Reaffirm support for the Saakashvili government and declare that its removal by the Russians would lead to recognition of a government-in-exile. This would instantly be understood as providing us the legal basis for supplying and supporting a Georgian resistance to any Russian-installed regime.

The Washington Post, August 14, 2008

"The Putin Doctrine" (2007)

And we know how Putin, who has called the demise of the Soviet Union the greatest political catastrophe of the 20th century, yearns for those superpower days. At Munich, he could not even disguise his Cold War nostalgia, asserting that "global security" was ensured by the "strategic potential of two superpowers."

 

Putin's bitter complaint is that today there remains only one superpower, the behemoth that dominates a "unipolar world." He knows that Moscow lacks the economic, military and even demographic means to challenge America as it did in Soviet days. He speaks more modestly of coalitions of aggrieved have-not countries that Russia might lead in countering American power.

 

Hence his increasingly active foreign policy -- military partnerships with China, nuclear cooperation with Iran, weapon supplies to Syria and Venezuela, diplomatic support as well as arms for a genocidal Sudan, friendly outreach to other potential partners of an anti-hegemonic (read: anti-American) alliance….

 

Nonetheless, Putin's aggressiveness does not signal a return to the Cold War. He is too clever to be burdened by the absurdity of socialist economics or Marxist politics. He is blissfully free of ideology, political philosophy and economic theory. There is no existential dispute with the United States.

 

He is a more modest man: a mere mafia don, seizing the economic resources and political power of a country for himself and his (mostly KGB) cronies. And promoting his vision of the Russian national interest -- assertive and expansionist -- by engaging in diplomacy that challenges the dominant power in order to boost his own.

The Washington Post, February 16, 2007

"That Murder In London" (2006)

The poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, renegade Russian spy and fierce critic of Vladimir Putin's government, is everywhere being called a mystery. There is dark speculation about unnamed "rogue elements" either in the Russian secret services or among ultranationalists acting independently of the government. There are whispers about the indeterminacy of things in the shadowy netherworld of Russian exile politics, crime and espionage.

 

Well, you can believe in indeterminacy. Or you can believe the testimony delivered on the only reliable lie detector ever invented -- the deathbed -- by the victim himself. Litvinenko directly accused Putin of killing him…..

 

The other reason for making it obvious and brazen is to send a message. This is a warning to all the future Litvinenkos of what awaits them if they continue to go after the Russian government. They'll get you even in London, where there is the rule of law. And they'll get you even if it makes negative headlines for a month.

The Washington Post, December 8, 2006

"The Path to Putin" (2000)

Kosovo created in Russia what Simes calls a "national security consensus:" the demand for a strong leader to do what it takes to restore Russia's standing and status. And it made confrontation with the United States a badge of honor….

 

The first Russian beneficiary of Kosovo was then-Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov. But it was Prime Minister Putin who understood how to fully exploit it. Applying the lessons of Kosovo, he seized upon Chechen provocations into neighboring Dagestan to launch his merciless war on Chechnya. It earned him enormous popularity and ultimately the presidency….

 

One of Putin's first promises is to rebuild Russia's military-industrial complex. We are now saddled with him for four years, probably longer, much longer.

The Washington Post, March 31, 2000