- - Monday, January 25, 2016

Vladimir Putin’s Russia has many vulnerabilities. So why aren’t we exploiting them?

The competition between great powers takes place the global stage and is undertaken not only by war but also by hundreds of other means. There is a continuous process of defining others’ vulnerabilities and seeking to exploit them by whatever overt and covert means are most advantageous. Mr. Putin — a student of Peter the Great and his Soviet forebears — understands this well. President Obama evidently does not.

Where Mr. Putin sent un-uniformed forces to conquer Crimea and (gradually) Ukraine, we haven’t performed the most elementary competitive act by arming the Ukrainians with the antitank missiles for which they’ve pleaded. Where Mr. Putin has sent his troops and air forces into battle to defend Bashar Assad’s terrorist regime in Syria, we’ve done nothing to oppose him. Now, if we can judge by the propaganda campaign taking place in the Russian media against it, Belarus may be next on his target list.

Mr. Putin, like many Russian and Soviet leaders before him, has made it his life’s work to create turmoil and instability wherever American influence can be felt. His success, so far, is due to two factors: President Obama’s fecklessness and his partnership with Iran.

Mr. Putin’s vulnerabilities are many, but two stand out: Russia’s economy and his own ego.

Syria is a case in point. Last week Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Russian air power had stabilized Mr. Assad’s regime. What that means is that the Syrian civil war is over. Though fighting will go on for the foreseeable future, Mr. Assad will remain in power despite Saudi Arabia’s intensive efforts to topple his regime.

We have sat on the sidelines. Mr. Obama’s infamous 2012 declaration of a “red line” against Mr. Assad’s further use of chemical weapons went unnoticed by Syria, which continued to use chemical weapons against its own people. Mr. Obama did nothing. Last year, when Russian air power was deployed to defend Mr. Assad, Mr. Obama again did nothing. He did the same when Iranian airpower and troops arrived to reinforce what the Russians were doing.

Mr. Putin shouldn’t be able to afford to do all of this. Last January, Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said Russia needed oil prices to remain at $70 per barrel to balance its budget. The oil glut recently pushed the price below $30 per barrel and it’s apparently going to go a lot lower with the shipment of sanctions-free Iranian oil.

The result has been that the ruble sank to a new low against the dollar last week at 80 rubles per dollar.

Europe imposed weak sanctions against Russia after the conquest of the Crimean Peninsula and the aggression against Ukraine. It won’t do more, fearing Russian cutoff of natural gas flowing westward. That fear is unreasonable because the Russians need the sales more than they fear the sanctions. Which leaves the table open for us.

Among the things we can, should (and won’t) do is to begin selling whatever reserves of Russian currency we may have. Though Russia may respond by dumping dollars, we will be hitting the ruble at a vulnerable moment, driving down its value considerably. If this were done properly — backed by a few strong speeches by our president, blaming Mr. Putin for our action — it could begin to drive down his huge popularity at home.

Another thing we can do (but won’t with Mr. Obama in the White House) is to accelerate quickly the sale of U.S.-produced natural gas to the NATO nations, reducing their reliance on Russian gas. It would be a purely commercial transaction designed to drive down the cost of Russian gas. Some estimates say that this could save the Europeans $20 billion a year. That would put an equivalent pressure on Russia’s economy.

These economic devices won’t stop Mr. Putin’s gamesmanship around the world, but they would make them far more costly both in his popularity at home and in his willingness to sustain them.

Mr. Putin’s ego is a harder target because he has made his strongman appearance — riding horses shirtless, pictures showing him working out — a principal element of his autocratic authority. There is no leader like him among the great powers.

We don’t need a president who can beat Mr. Putin at arm wrestling, but we need one who can, like Davy Crockett, grin down an angry bear.

In real world terms, that means a president who can reunite America with the allies that Mr. Obama has shunned around the world. NATO’s military forces — with the exception of ours — are a hollow shell. The French air campaign against the Islamic State — spurred by the terrorist attacks in France and which French Prime Minister Francois Hollande insists will not end until ISIS is destroyed — won’t last long because the French can’t sustain them. Yet France won’t increase its military expenditures.

Britain’s Labor Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, recently suggested that the United Kingdom’s nuclear submarines should continue to operate to ensure shipyard jobs. But, he said, they should no longer carry nuclear warheads.

The emigration of more than a million Middle Easterners to radically multicultural Germany and the rest of the EU continues unabated, yet the Europeans can’t even agree on how to protect their external borders.

None of those things can be fixed quickly (and Mr. Corbyn’s problem can’t be helped at all). But a strong American president can get these allies to re-engage with us and again undertake the defense of our mutual interests, standing up to Mr. Putin and his ilk. It would be the modern equivalent of grinning down a dangerous bear.

Jed Babbin served as a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration. He is a senior fellow of the London Center for Policy Research and the author of five books including “In the Words of Our Enemies.”

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