Taking Down the Stop Sign

The Navy Times explains that the Russians weren't trying to sink the USS Donald Cook by flying an SU-24 thirty feet off the destroyer's deck in what U.S. officials called "simulated attacks."  They were just trying to send a message.

This was definitely provocative, but it doesn't amount to a threat, said the retired frigate and cruiser CO.

"Well, we’re not at war with Russia," Capt. Rick Hoffman said. "It would be one thing to be operating and have a threatening attack profile from someone who might not recognize me — that’s not the case here."...

It's more likely that the stunt will end up as a public relations tool for Russian President Vladimir Putin, showing force against the Americans operating in his backyard.

Putin has just added an insulting addendum to the recipient of that message. NBC News reports that "Russia said Thursday it does not understand the 'painful reaction from our American colleagues' after two of its warplanes made low passes over a U.S. Navy destroyer." It's a thug's throwaway line, a comeback straight out of the Joker's movie line: why so serious? Can't you take a joke?

The unmistakable suggestion of Putin's style of offensive humor is that he doesn't care what the recipient thinks and he wants the whole world to know it. From a political point of view, that challenge is more dangerous than the physical menace to a single naval vessel. What Putin wants to do is undermine the prestige and credibility of the recipient. As the recent post Spring Offensive observed, the Kremlin is on a campaign of mischief and it is focusing its efforts on the weakest link: the befuddled and pathetic leadership of the West. The objective is Obama. The center of gravity is Obama.

Putin reckons that if he can intimidate the American president, he doesn't have to sink the USS Donald Cook because Obama will order it home. Whether or not Putin succeeds, "the danger to the world is he will try when with any reasonable president, Putin would never have tried at all."

The perils of encouraging aggression did not have to be explained to an educated person 30 years ago. People of that vintage would have learned from schoolbooks that the Great War began, as so many conflicts in history have done, with a miscalculation. They knew by heart that Hitler invaded Poland because he believed that Chamberlain was a "worm" who would not oppose his will. They would have told you that B-52 wings which orbited on 24 airborne alert so that no one would ever risk an attack on the US led humanity safely through the valley of shadow of the bomb.

America sheltered behind Red Lines during the Cold War, put in place by a generation who knew first-hand the high price of removing them. Yet in a generation since the fall of the Berlin Wall, that lesson has been forgotten even in those who style themselves as intellectuals. President Obama's willingness to negotiate every "Red Line", which he regards as smart diplomacy, as proof of his intellectual superiority and confirmation of his status as the only adult in the room, is in fact nothing but an ignorant repetition of every error in the last hundred years, the action of a man who seems to have forgotten, indeed never having bothered to learn, the lessons his nation's history has to offer.

Even now president Obama's advisers may be telling him: "it's a cry for help from Putin. He just wants you to give him something."

Creating moveable Red Lines is destabilizing. Captain Rick Hoffman correctly observes that the USS Cook provocation by itself is not worth a fight. It's the one that comes after, and the one after that, and after that, which you really have to worry about. And they will come. For the challenges either stop somewhere or continue until they can't go on any more. Then Putin may find too late that there comes a point when even Obama will be unwilling, or unable, to take a further step back. But by that time everyone will be painted into a corner and the fat will be in the fire, where it never needed to be.

Follow Wretchard on Twitter.


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