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DANA MILBANK: Obvious limits in responding to Putin

Washington Post Writers Group Published: March 24, 2014 4:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- It took off with a clear destination but then veered off course and disappeared. Several countries joined the search for answers and offered conflicting theories about what went wrong.

I speak, of course, of the U.S. attempt to keep Vladimir Putin from taking Crimea.

Any resemblance between Russia's annexation of the Ukrainian province and the tragedy of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is purely coincidental. But both have been humbling.

The search in Asia showed that, for all our global connectivity and surveillance technology, a jumbo jet can vanish without a trace. And events in Ukraine revealed that, though the United States likes to call itself the world's only superpower, it had no ability to stop Russia from lopping off a chunk of a neighbor.

The first -- part mystery, part thriller -- is more captivating. But it distracted us from the second, which is a serious statement on the limits of American power in the 21st century. Russia perpetrated the first annexation of one European country's territory by another since World War II -- and its leaders literally scoffed at U.S. objections and sanctions.

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The neocons say the Ukraine invasion is a result of President Obama's weakness, brought about by his administration's attempt at a conciliatory "reset" of relations with Russia and his failure to enforce his ultimatum in Syria. Putin, by contrast, justified the invasion in a speech last week by citing American military actions in Iraq and other states and quoting George W. Bush's with-us-or-against-us philosophy.

For those who believe in American power, reality is more difficult to accept than either of those explanations. We didn't cause the Russian annexation of Crimea, and we can't stop it.

A former top official on Bush's national-security team acknowledged to me that there's not much that can be done now to stop Putin in Crimea; he simply said Obama could have prevented it from coming to this. Maybe so. And maybe Flight 370 was hijacked by an Iranian traveling on a stolen passport. Or the Illuminati were involved. Or something supernatural happened. Or it was sucked into a black hole.

By the time President Obama spoke in the White House driveway Thursday morning, the Russian takeover was a done deal. Obama was really warning about "further incursions."

Even the president's most hawkish critics acknowledge there is no military option in Ukraine. The best the United States and European Union can do is prop up Ukraine's economy, while NATO assures Poland and the Baltic states it will live up to its defense commitments.

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Severe economic sanctions -- targeting Russia's energy industry, for example -- could provoke a bigger crisis.

On Thursday's administration conference call, The Washington Post's Karen DeYoung noted that "the Russians don't seem to have been deterred by what you've done."

"People may think that (the sanctions) are a mere wrist-slap," an official protested. "I can assure them that they are not."

Maybe he's right. Or maybe we're just trying to convince ourselves that we're something more than spectators.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

(c) 2014, Washington Post Writers Group

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