"We can take Kyiv in two weeks" - Vladimir Putin
"We can crush ISIS in two weeks" - Barack Obama
The first sentence was used a few days ago by the Russian president in a phone chat with José Manuel Barroso, the head of the European Commission. Regardless of the actual context (there have been divergent clarifications on both sides) the wording employed by Putin was, to put it mildly, quite unusual and disturbing. To boot, Putin didn't seem to be angered by the leak. He apparently wanted us to think that he could gulp down whole Ukraine on a whim.
The second quotation is, of course, bogus. What we actually heard from Barack Obama about the Islamic State's bloody offensive was a little bit less reassuring: "We don't have a strategy yet". Sadly, the US president doesn't seem to realize how damaging such disclosures are to the West's image in the Muslim world in general and amongst the jihadists in particular. Weakness is the last thing we should display in front of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his acolytes.
Putin's braggadocio is disgusting, but Obama's indecisiveness is plain dangerous: it amounts to gradual surrender. Admittedly, Obama cannot do much about Ukraine right now - at least in military terms. He cannot deploy tanks and combat aircraft to fend off Russian troops rolling towards Kyiv. European NATO members are reluctant to even provide the Ukrainian army with bulletproof vests and helmets, let alone hand grenades and missiles.
Obama probably cannot prevent Putin from winning this war. But in this case "not preventing" Putin from winning the war means losing it.
Russia intervened because Ukraine had suddenly changed the tack and begun sailing towards the West. That caused a lot of trouble - not only for Russia, but for the European Union and America as well. The West was ready to defend its territory, but not to defend Western values BEYOND its borders. Meanwhile, the Kremlin has no problem exporting "Eastern" values to its neighbours. In Ukraine Mr. Putin is waging a war against the West, not against Poroshenko's "fascist junta".
Thus, we should ask ourselves a very simple question: can the West afford to lose two more wars, after withdrawing from embarrassing adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq and leaving Libya in a shambles? The West's inaction towards Russia, coupled with vacillation on ISIS, is devastating to the credibility of the entire transatlantic security architecture.
Obama cannot go to war against Putin. But he can crush the Islamic State - maybe in two weeks, maybe in two months. With boots on the ground, obviously. It wouldn't be surgical and clean, rather unpleasant and messy. However, it's presumably the only way to show Mr. Putin the West can still win wars.
It won't stop him for good, but it will undoubtedly give him some food for thought.