Many Americans flinch from the latest turn in the Ukraine crisis now that Vladimir Putin has taken control of it. It was the same in Syria last autumn, you will recall. The Western powers whip themselves into a dither, and the Russian president then makes some simple, galvanizing move that puts everything on a different course.
In Syria, Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov jumped on an offer Secretary of State John Kerry made but never intended to: Within two days of Kerry’s much-noted press conference in London last autumn, Moscow had Bashar al-Assad surrendering his chemical weapons stockpile. The U.S. threat of a missile strike melted, and Putin had wrested the initiative in the Syria crisis from Washington’s grip. Ukraine. Just as the Obama administration and its European allies reached high decibels last weekend, Putin telephoned Obama in Riyadh and said approximately, “My people need to talk to your people now.” Kerry and Lavrov have been negotiating ever since, the American declaring that there is no solution in Ukraine but a political solution.
Some readers will think I glorify the Russian leader and denigrate the Americans as if on autopilot. This is not it. Putin is a gifted statesman: I stand by this observation. He brings an understanding of history to his foreign relations. And in his dealings with Washington he exposes the very old American habit of refusing history any place in the understanding of anything — which is to say the habit of making nearly every mistake it is possible to make. This is why I like watching Putin.
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