Bob Franken: Costly games

One of the worst parts of a sudden global crisis like the one that has erupted over Ukraine is that we have no idea what’s really going on. The diplomats and intelligence people of our national-security apparatus, along with our political leaders, are playing their Cold War games mostly in secret. The bigger problem is that we can’t be sure that even they have any idea what’s going on.

What’s does it mean when President Barack Obama warns Soviet — uh, excuse me, I mean Russian — President Vladimir Putin that “there will be costs” if he sends the military into Ukraine? Is there something ominous about that diplospeak? Apparently not, since Putin responded by sending troops into Ukraine. More importantly, when Vlad makes his moves, what can the United States really do but grumble or bluster and hope against hope some miscalculation by someone doesn’t make the situation worse?

Short of a shooting war with Russia, what can the U.S. and E.U. really do to punish an invasion? Boycott the upcoming economic summit in Sochi? Big deal. End trade talks? Another slap in the wrist with a wet noodle.

Has Putin calculated correctly that after Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States and the Europeans are depleted, really unable to muster a forceful response as he pursues his expansionist dreams to avenge the fall of the Soviet Union? Already many Republicans are dumping all over Obama, scoring whatever points they can, screaming for some kind of demonstration that the U.S. of A. is still able to bend the rest of the planet to its will.

The blame is misplaced, given that it was their Bush administration that drained the military with its poorly thought-out adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. The harsh reality is that America is not quite as super a superpower as we once were. Certainly, Putin knows that and has forced Obama to play with a weak hand.

From an optics point of view, the president probably should reconsider standing out there and making threats like “there will be costs,” which, to be honest, comes across as namby-pamby. Western leaders can warn that a Russian invasion will be a “grave mistake” all they want, and Mr. Putin can ignore them.

Presidents Obama and Putin talk on the phone, and we’re told that the conversations are testy. Meanwhile, nervous American and European officials “consult.” What does that mean? Do they seek ways out of the impending confrontation, or do they talk about the wife and kids? It’s a real shame that we don’t know whether our wives and kids, all of us, are in danger, or whether maybe this is all some sort of contrivance.

It actually was easy to see this one coming. It was hitting the fan in Kiev while the Olympic athletes were hitting the slopes in Sochi. It was obvious that Mr. Putin would delay provocative action till his expensive ego trip had ended. After that, if he has something up his sleeve he surely would reveal it. On cue, he has. What’s disconcerting is that the West seems so surprised and unprepared.

Hopefully, after everyone has milked all the drama out of this, there will some sort of agreement to stand down, an unsatisfying solution that at least avoids all-out war. But that will be after a lot of posturing and irresponsible saber-rattling. Then we can move on to the next crisis, a domestic political one perhaps, anything to feed the pundit beast.

Hopefully it will be a controversy where the players let it all hang out, compared with the inherent secrecy of the Ukraine melodrama. There “will be costs” all right, but most of them will be to the tattered credibility of our leaders.

Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.

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