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In Russia and beyond, Obama administration must take foreign threats seriously

Published: Wednesday, March 19 2014 11:18 a.m. MDT

On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Crimea was now part of the Russian Federation. Putin announced this in the face of international condemnation of Russia’s incursion into Ukrainian territory on Feb. 28.

Associated Press

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On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Crimea was now part of the Russian Federation. Putin announced this in the face of international condemnation of Russia’s incursion into Ukrainian territory on Feb. 28.

Indeed, the White House has called Russia’s action a violation of international law, including Russia’s obligations under the United Nations Charter, its 1997 military basing agreement with Ukraine, and with treaties that include the 1994 Budapest Memorandum and the Helsinki Final Act.

“[V]iolation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity … represent a profound interference in matters that must be determined by the Ukrainian people,” President Obama said as the crisis took shape three weeks ago. Such an invasion, he said, “would be a clear violation of Russia’s commitment to respect the independence and sovereignty and borders of Ukraine, and of international laws. And just days after the world came to Russia for the Olympic Games, it would invite the condemnation of nations around the world.”

Now that the condemnation has arrived, Putin is apparently gambling that the world will little notice or at least quickly forget what has happened in Crimea. With Russia’s physical control over the Crimean peninsula assured, Putin’s forces held a referendum in which 97 percent of voters in the region voted in favor of seceding from Ukraine.

According to the Kyiv Post, however, the only two choices offered to voters were to either join Russia immediately or to declare independence and then join Russia. Maintaining the status quo was not an option.

Crimea’s referendum has also been decried by nations across the world and by 13 members of the United Nations Security Council. However, it was prevented from issuing a formal finding that the referendum was invalid because Russia, as a permanent member of the council, exercised its veto power.

Now the question is, what can be done about Russia’s violation of international law?

The United States and its allies find themselves with limited options. Obama has announced a series of sanctions that few expect will have any real consequence.

What’s disconcerting in this entire episode is that the Obama administration seems to have been caught off guard by Putin’s aggression. In 2009, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with a “reset button” to symbolize a fresh start between the two nations. In 2012, when Gov. Mitt Romney stated that Putin’s Russia remained America’s most formidable geopolitical adversary, the president dismissed his concerns with a snarky rejoinder that “the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.”

The president’s overly confident admonishment seems especially naïve in light of recent events. Putin is serious about expanding Russia’s power in dangerous and destabilizing ways. This administration would do well not to underestimate him again.

As a first measure, the Obama administration must recognize and take seriously international threats when they emerge on the horizon and come to the government’s attention — and not in a reactive and after-the-fact manner. Such a reactive approach has been all-too-frequent from Syria to Iran to North Korea.

Words of warning should always be preceded by building a coalition of nations prepared to act in defending America’s — and the West’s — values, including freedom of speech, freedom of religion, free markets and democratic self-determination.

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