President Barack Obama made essential and powerful points in an important speech Wednesday on the Ukraine crisis that should not be overlooked.
The confrontation with Russia is in Europe's backyard, so European nations must take the lead in standing up to Vladimir Putin. Still, America "will never waver" in supporting its European allies, including sending more military assets to countries once behind the Iron Curtain.
The crisis is not another Cold War, but it is a serious challenge to peace and stability in the 21st century. Russia cannot be allowed to use "brute force" to take territory and intimidate its neighbors.
If Russia persists in its aggression, Putin and his inner circle must bear a price, in escalating economic and political sanctions. But they still have to be given the diplomatic space to de-escalate and be responsible.
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These are the principles around which the Obama administration can and should build its policy.
If only the president's remarks a day earlier had been as smart and diplomatic. In defending himself against critics who say that his foreign policy has been weak, he called Russia a "regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength, but out of weakness."
That was a mistake. First, it's not true. Any nation that has enough nuclear weapons to annihilate the United States is not merely a regional power. Second, it's not wise to poke the Russian bear in the eye. At least part of Putin's motive for his adventurism appears to be some misguided hope to restore Russia to the superpower status it had before the breakup of the Soviet Union. Being so dismissive of Russia's influence can only goad Putin.
European leaders were surely listening closely to every word of Obama's speech Wednesday in Brussels, the capital of the European Union. They have much more at stake. Their economies are more tied to Russia's, particularly in oil and gas. And they have the history of two wars in the last century that killed millions.
While his address may not get the attention it deserves back home, Obama tried to remind Americans why Ukraine matters, even if the U.S. is not directly threatened.
"If we applied a coldhearted calculus, we might decide to look the other way," he said. "But that kind of casual indifference would ignore the lessons that are written in the cemeteries of this continent."
That is a truth that cannot be taken lightly, in Europe or America.