When I lived in Austin, Texas and, as a graduate of the University of Texas Law School, followed the legal environment more than I do now, I felt that I could identify a particular kind of criminal defense lawyer: hyper-active and histrionic, a magnet for the media, firing off motions for recusal and change of venue and far-fetched but admissible alternative theories like Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday at the OK Corral.

It was my perception that this genus of attorney was most often hired by guilty people. Their motivation, I thought, was partly strategic. The swarm of motions and media reports might infect the community from which the jury pool would be drawn, or might exhaust the limited time and resources of underpaid and under-resourced assistant district attorneys.

But there was another, less practical reason, I thought: they knew they were guilty, they knew they were likely to go down, but they wanted to go down with guns blazing and banners flying.

I think of these lawyers when I hear the senatorial roars and watch the senatorial chest beating occasioned by Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea. Obama “needs to do something,” says Lindsay Graham. “Unless we push back soon, the worse [sic] is yet to come.” Put missiles in the Czech Republic, says John McCain.

Such displays of rhetorical aggression—and make no mistake about it, these are just displays; even McCain and Graham, not to mention an overwhelming majority of all Americans, don’t want to intervene militarily in Ukraine—could work. Obama might be intimidated. Putin might be intimidated.

But we all know they won’t work—except to make us feel better, like we’ve gone down with rhetorical guns blazing.

And except to cede to Putin one of his primary objectives for annexing Crimea and insinuating that with Crimea down, Moldova, Estonia, or Poland—anyplace in the region with an identifiable region of ethnic Russians—could be next: making Russia not a regional power with nuclear weapons, as President Obama referred to it, but once again the international power the Soviet Union used to be, the peer in power not of a Britain or France but of the US or China.

Putin has made no secret of his belief that the breakup of the Soviet Union, of which he was a creature, was a disaster. And when we look, not only at his annexation of Crimea and his threat to other former Soviet republics and satellites, but his championing of incorrigibles like Iran and Iran and Syria, they share the result of making Russia an indispensable party to the conduct of international relations, in Russia’s region and beyond. It seems especially revealing that while Russia maintains its relevance to global politics by holding itself out as a potential influencer of pariahs, its usefulness never seems to extend to actually resolving any of these situations. And of course so long as they remain unresolved, so long do those who desire resolution need to maintain relations with Russia—and so long does Russia continue to sit at the grownup table.

If that is a unifying element of Putin’s actions, it is also a unifying element in President Obama’s low-key responses. Instead of joining McCain’s and Graham’s chest beating, instead of hurling thunderbolt denunciations and implying retribution that everybody knows will either not be carried out or won’t work, Obama has treated Russia like, well, a regional power. Instead of boycotting the Winter Olympics over Russian persecution of gays, which would have framed Russia as equal in stature, Obama sent a low-level delegation of former Olympians—one of whom, Billie Jean King, wound up not going. Instead of bombing Russia with sweeping sanctions—which wouldn’t have worked and, like the grain boycott that Jimmy Carter imposed on the Soviet Union in retribution for its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, might have hurt them as much as they hurt us—Obama imposed narrowly-targeted sanctions on a handful of high-ranking officials and oligarchs.

Did they roll back the annexation? No, but neither would anything else. What they did do is to avoid further elevating Putin, to avoid framing him as a peer to whom otherwise undeserved attention must be paid.

Putin wants to restore Russia to its Soviet status quo ante. And in fact Russia bears a striking resemblance to its Soviet-era self—a state of affairs that, we should remember, didn’t perpetuate it in power but doomed it to near-term collapse. It is still a member of the UN Security Council. And militarily powerful, yes—in the sense that it has nuclear weapons and an army capable of taking on such powerhouses as Georgia and Ukraine. It also has large reserves of oil and gas, and neighboring countries that need it.

But as former Secretary of State George Shultz and former Sen. Sam Nunn point out:

…these assets are also potential liabilities. The Russian economy depends on these trading and financial arrangements and on income from oil and gas sales that are now taking place at historically high prices. Moreover, Russia has a demographic catastrophe looming in its low fertility and astonishingly low longevity rates for men, including men of working age. Many young Russians are emigrating. There is an open rebellion in the Caucasus. Russia shares a long border with China, with hardly anyone and large resources on one side and a lot of people on the other. Putin also has a restive population, as shown in an odd way by the arrest of members of the band Pussy Riot who sang songs of dissent on street corners.

Compared to Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, Russia is strong. It may yet aggrandize itself further at their expense. But in its pursuit of the status it had in the Soviet era, to return to being a super-power to be reckoned with on the world stage, Putin is acting not from strength but from weakness.

If we have at our disposal measures that will roll back or punish Russian invasions, by all means let’s take them. But thundering feckless imprecations, making threats that can’t be carried out or won’t work, bolsters Putin’s ambitions and advances his quest to return Russia to its Soviet-era stature.

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