The Russian Bear in Western Clothing

On Saturday, Russian troops and tanks rolled into the Crimea in Ukraine, taking over airports and government offices.

So much for Presidents Obama’s famous hitting the “reset” button with Putin.

Now, it looks more like a “rewind” than a reset, a return back to the Cold War, when Soviet tanks drove into Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland, crushing the sparks of democracy wherever they began to flicker in Eastern Europe, except now the pictures of the incursion are in color and not in grainy black and white.

The “new” Russia has become nothing more than the old Russian bear wearing Western clothing.

While the West is now wringing its hands over this naked aggression into Ukraine, it only has itself to blame for sitting on those same hands while Russia asserted its power around the globe. Putin represents the quintessential bully who becomes increasingly emboldened when acts of aggression go unpunished.

Make no mistake. This aggression didn’t start with Ukraine. Following the familiar pattern of most dictators throughout history, Putin first crushed opposition and dissent at home. Russian journalists critical of Putin have been murdered or have simply disappeared. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists ranks Russia as one of the most dangerous countries for journalists to work in, with 36 murdered since 1992, most of which crimes were never prosecuted. Putin has run a government that has squelched free speech; and exiling, imprisoning, or even reportedly killing opponents.

With internal opposition cowed and crushed, with no rule of law at home, without any repercussions from the West for violating human rights, Putin tried his bully tactics on his neighbors, waiting to see if there would be any staunch opposition from the West. There wasn’t. He sent his military into the neighboring republic of Georgia when it attempted to restore two provinces to the nation when they were taken over by Russian rebels. Putin also cut off the gas supply — in the middle of the winter, mind you — to Ukraine in order to pressure it not to become close to the European Union in 2009.

Putin has also been dead-set on recreating Russian proxies in the Middle East, and has done so without any protest from the West. While 100,000 have died in the Syrian civil war, Russia has provided massive military support to Assad’s efforts to wipe out civilian populations in rebel strongholds. While the West has been doing all it can to thwart the Iranian nuclear program, Russia has done all it can to provide Tehran with the most sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons, weapons that would make it more difficult to use a military option against Iran’s uranium-enrichment facilities. Putin has crossed every so-called red line drawn by the U.S. and its allies, only to discover that those were lines in the sand.

That’s why it’s important that this time Putin gets the message that the latest aggression in Ukraine will not be tolerated, that this a true red line that can’t be crossed, and that he will face more than the usual round of condemnation. Putin is trying to restore Russia’s Cold War hegemony, but he also has to remember that unlike during the Cold War, Russia’s current economy is tightly coupled with that of the West.

It’s highly unlikely the Western powers will take any military action against Putin’s aggression, but tough economic sanctions may send the tanks back to where they came from. Putin can bamage he has worked so hard to cultivate. Placing Russia on the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) list of sanctioned countries would set back the Russian banking system decades, effectively blocking any electronic fund transfers to or from Russia.

A tough approach to Putin this time is crucial. If the West continues to show it has no appetite for confrontation, Putin will only keep developing a greater appetite for aggression.