[This post has been updated to reflect Putin's announcement that he's preparing to intervene in the Ukraine]

Here are four videos with an overlapping cast of characters. You remember their names, but probably not the story. Nobody knows the story yet. What action they are portraying on stage remains a puzzle. They may not even know it themselves. What drama does it represent? Is it a comedy of errors? Or a tragedy?

In the video above, President Obama warns Russia about the consequences of destabilizing the Ukraine. The president’s remarks contain two undeniable facts. One, that he’s been trying to lasso Vladimir Putin into a joint resolution of the Ukrainian problem. Two, that so far he’s had no luck. Something has bolted the barn and that something must be coaxed back into the corral.

During the height of the Cold War it was believed that having to emphasize the obvious represented a failure of policy. Deterrence had to be self-evident; a daily thing. You didn’t go on the air to issue bloodcurdling warnings. You didn’t have to because stability was there, part of the normal like the air or the earth. The Russian president only had to look at the his daily briefing to know that the USAF was flying and hence that the day could begin as peacefully as the previous one.

One of my professors at Harvard remarked that it was possible to destabilize the world by building down as much as building up. If you changed the incentives, he said, you changed behavior. You encourage certain types of behavior and you get more of it. It was something everybody knew back then, but there were always those who knew better.

When an American president has to issue veiled warnings to Vladimir Putin — say something that Putin should know as second nature — then something terrible has happened. Some upset has occurred. A thing that was previously there to keep the floor level has gone missing. Why else should President Obama have to make a pointless observation on TV to communicate something that Putin should know from the moment he puts on his socks in the morning?

Where did it go wrong? What has gone wrong? That is what historians of the future — assuming there are any left around — will determine. But in the meantime, here are three videos as background. How does the story go: Tragedy? Farce? Or cliffhanger?

Update

But I guess the next act in the drama has begun. Putin has emphatically replied to Obama’s warning not to intervene in the Ukraine by declaring he was going to do exactly that.  Obama drew the line. Putin just stepped over it.

NBC News just announced that “Russian President Vladimir Putin has asked parliament for approval to use the country’s military in Ukraine, the Kremlin said in a statement Saturday. Putin said the move is needed to protect ethnic Russians and the personnel of a Russian military base in Ukraine’s strategic region of Crimea.”

The text of the Putin’s request, as reported by the BBC is:

“In connection with the extraordinary situation that has arisen in the Ukraine, the threat to the lives of citizens of the Russian Federation, our fellow countrymen and the personnel of the military contingent of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation deployed on the territory of the Ukraine (the Autonomous Republic of the Crimea) in accordance with an international agreement, on the basis of Point G Part 1 of Article 101 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation [governing the use of Russian armed forces outside Russian territory], I am submitting to the Council of the Federation [upper house] of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation a request to use the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation on the territory of the Ukraine until the normalisation of the socio-political situation in that country.”

If Russia goes into the Ukraine, Kiev may invoke the Budapest Memorandum. “A treaty signed in 1994 by the US and Britain could pull both countries into a war to protect Ukraine if President Putin’s troops cross into the country. Bill Clinton, John Major, Boris Yeltsin and Leonid Kuchma – the then-rulers of the USA, UK, Russia and Ukraine – agreed to the The Budapest Memorandum as part of the denuclearization of former Soviet republics after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Technically it means that if Russia has invaded Ukraine then it would be difficult for the US and Britain to avoid going to war.”

This would be lunacy on the scale of August, 1914.  But it would be good to remember that no one saw the crisis in the Balkans escalating that far either.

The sheer comprehensiveness of the administration’s miscalculation is now crystal clear. The crisis with Russia comes at a time when the US still has troops in landlocked Afghanistan, dependent in part on supplies delivered through sufferance of the Kremlin, because stalwart Pakistan is holding up supplies and blocking egress. It comes at a moment when the southern flank of the Black Sea, Turkey and the Levant are embroiled in a crisis. At it arrives when the US military has been cut to the bone.

Perhaps the administration calculated it could spread American forces out like thin butter because it was superlative at smart diplomacy. Maybe the president thought he could lock up the ground forces in Afghanistan without a port to their rear to keep them out of trouble. Perchance he figured that he could reduce the size of the army, starve the navy, and shrink the airforce. He had his phone and he had his pen. What more did he need?

Inherent in this calculation was the idea that he had an ample Design Margin; that he could spend the substance of America on Hope and Change; on Navigators and not navigation and on social change instead of maintaining the Pax Americana which perhaps he regarded as something as old and irrelevant as the Constitution.

I guess he was wrong. And maybe the commenters on this site can take momentary satisfaction at being right. But a fat lot of good it’s going to do us.  I’d rather be wrong and copacetic than right and in a passel of trouble.

Events are now moving so swiftly that Obama himself has become an irrelevancy. He let the crisis overrun him without so much as a cabinet meeting or an attempt at a council of national unity.  The gooks are in the wire and he’s declared Happy Hour for the Democratic Party. But that only underscores the problem. He’s history one way or the other. The problem is to keep from joining him.

The challenge facing the American political class is what to do now. The unthinkable has happened: a real international crisis has flared up with an equally real dope in the Oval Office. The political class must realize they are playing for real money now.  They must try try to stabilize the crisis before it gets completely away. This game’s for keeps.


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