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Why has U.S. response to Ukraine crisis appeared muddled? Years of focus elsewhere

WASHINGTON – Russia’s annexation of Crimea, made official on Friday, was either entirely predictable or a total surprise.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is either a madman acting on impulse or a calculating architect rebuilding the Soviet Union. Ukraine’s new leaders might be democratic reformists or, as Putin prefers, “nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites.” And the United States either wields tough sanctions tools that’ll isolate Moscow – or has so little influence over events that U.S. policy is outdated and irrelevant.

Ask longtime observers of events in Eastern Europe about the crisis in Ukraine and those are the highly contradictory views that come back. The snowballing of events in Ukraine – from a local protest movement in Kiev to the overthrow of the Ukrainian government to the lightning Russian takeover of Crimea – has outpaced the U.S. official response and left ordinary Americans looking on in confusion.

The United States and its European allies have declared the referendum by which Crimeans supposedly gave overwhelming approval to union with Russia a week ago illegal and imposed a series of sanctions on people and a Russian bank supposedly close to Putin in retaliation. But those sanctions have been widely criticized as too little, too late.

President Obama hasn’t offered an explanatory speech to the American people about why the Ukraine-Russia crisis is or isn’t of strategic importance to the United States, even as the evening newscasts are filled with questions about a new “cold war.”

“He gave a brief statement in the bowels of the White House regarding these minimalist sanctions and then walked out of the room. He didn’t say much to the American people,” Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, said of Obama’s handling of the crisis. “I don’t think there’s even much clarity abroad yet about our position. I hope it will emerge in sharper relief.”

The explanation for what critics call a muddled approach, analysts say, lies in what has happened to American foreign policy in the years since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the Cold War ended: the United States looked away from Europe and began to focus on seemingly more pressing matters.

After a half-century of intense interest on European security issues, the Middle East became the focus – Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, followed by the mayhem attributed to nonstate actors such as al-Qaida, which attacked U.S. targets in 1993, 1998, 2000 and, most catastrophically, 2001, and prompted U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

That left little space for worry over Russia’s growing belligerence as the Obama administration continued to talk about a “reset” in relations with Moscow even after it became clear that the Kremlin wasn’t on board.

“We haven’t been paying attention to European security, really. We thought we’d reached the end of the Cold War and that was it,” said Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There’s a general intellectual difficulty to wrap our heads around what is, as (Secretary of State John) Kerry stated, Putin operating with a 19th-century playbook in a 21st-century world.”

The lack of understanding of Putin’s complexities or the impact of the Soviet Union’s collapse on the wider Russian psychology is evident in the U.S. response, which Kuchins mocked as: “Didn’t you get the memo? The world has moved on.”

That stance, he warned, “is not working, will not work and could lead to catastrophe.”

Putin has appeared a step ahead of Obama at every turn of the Ukraine crisis, leaving the U.S. president vulnerable to criticism that he’s weak and reactionary, with a simplistic understanding of Moscow’s motivations.

The resulting policy is an exercise in crisis management, critics say, charging that decisions appear slapdash, late and lacking firm European support.

“The key issue is not whether we should have anticipated the Crimea. The key issue is: do we have the leadership to deal with the aftermath?” said Anthony Cordesman, a former senior defense official who’s now with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Russia policymakers at the State Department don’t have the ear of the president as predecessors did, Kuchins and other analysts said. National Security Adviser Susan Rice has shown little grasp of the nuances of Russian thinking, Kuchins added.

“As far as her understanding of the Russians, she’s really failed,” he said.

Paul Miller, national security specialist at the RAND Corporation and former National Security Council staff member, said that policymakers for more than a decade have mistakenly assumed that “Great Power rivalries are no longer relevant” after the Cold War and have turned the focus away from ambitious states such as Russia, China and India.

Miller said the U.S. response to Russia’s takeover of Crimea so far has failed to properly weigh Crimea’s place in Russian history and is naive in the idea that severing trade ties and imposing sanctions would sway someone like Putin, who’s mournful about the collapse of the Soviet Union and is believed to have ambitions of rebuilding it in some fashion.

“Sanctions don’t touch the full range of things that motivate states’ behaviors,” he said. “The way Putin defines interests may seem unusual to us, but that doesn’t mean they’re not real interests.”

Several Russia specialists said that the only way the Obama administration could contain and exert influence over events now is by first accepting that Crimea belongs to Russia and easing off the statements that it must withdraw militarily and open direct talks with the Ukrainian government in Kiev. The focus instead should be on reassuring neighboring NATO states while avoiding conflagration, even if that means sacrificing Crimea.

Many concede, however, that with such a confused picture of Putin and his motivations, it’s unclear whether the Obama administration could come up with any offer that would deter Putin from what the West fears are expansionist inclinations.

“The Russians say ‘the appetite grows with eating,’ ” Kuchins said. “And he just took a very juicy morsel.”