Skip to main content

'The NATO Show': Putin's favorite comedy?

By David Rothkopf
updated 1:34 AM EDT, Fri September 5, 2014
Russia's President Vladimir Putin is a popular but polarizing figure who has dominated Russian politics for more than a decade. Click through to see some highlights of his career. Russia's President Vladimir Putin is a popular but polarizing figure who has dominated Russian politics for more than a decade. Click through to see some highlights of his career.
HIDE CAPTION
Putin in power
Putin in power
Putin in power
Putin in power
Putin in power
Putin in power
Putin in power
Putin in power
Putin in power
Putin in power
Putin in power
Putin in power
Putin in power
Putin in power
Putin in power
Putin in power
Putin in power
Putin in power
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Rothkopf: Vladimir Putin will be entertained watching the NATO Summit
  • NATO's rhetoric has been its only weapon against Russian aggression
  • NATO is not designed to respond to Putin's style of incremental takeovers
  • NATO, U.S. absorbed with fighting Islamic extremism and solving domestic issues

Editor's note: David Rothkopf writes regularly for CNN.com. He is CEO and editor of the FP Group, publishers of Foreign Policy magazine, and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is the author of "National Insecurity: U.S. Leadership in an Age of Fear," due out next month. Follow him on Twitter at @djrothkopf. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

(CNN) -- President Obama's favorite television shows include "House of Cards" and "Mad Men." One can imagine that when his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin wants to kick back and relax, all he will need to do is turn on the nightly news and watch the latest reports from the NATO Summit in Wales.

Putin can listen as NATO leaders roll out the latest iteration of their bold responses to his annexation of Crimea and his invasion of Ukraine.

Imagine how he'll be tickled as NATO leaders fall all over themselves trying to find ways to refer to his sending Russian troops into a neighboring country without actually calling it an invasion.

Imagine him, no doubt lying shirtless on a polar bear skin that he single-handedly separated from its original owner, laughing as NATO unveils the stockpile of strong adjectives that have been its principle weapons in containing the Kremlin's aggression.

David Rothkopf
David Rothkopf

Then, as NATO's Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen rolls out what they call in the political biz "the big deliverable" of the summit -- a Readiness Action Plan that will make 4,000 troops available within two days of a Russian incursion into a member state -- one can only hope that Kremlin doctors are standing by, because Putin could injure himself laughing.

First of all, NATO members are already supposed to be guaranteed protection by virtue of their very membership. One would imagine that each had in mind something considerably more robust and more rapid than this middling unit the alliance has dreamed up.

This is little more than a tepid response gesture, a sign not of strength, but one that shows how the world's most powerful alliance is now utterly adrift.

There will be many speeches suggesting that NATO is re-energized by Putin's threat. There will be lots of self-congratulations on the effectiveness of economic sanctions levied against the Russians. There will be talk of new mega-sanctions that will really keep them in line. But Putin will sit there watching, perhaps munching on pieces of deep fried Siberian tiger that he killed with his bare hands, as he contemplates that everything he wanted he got, and that all he wants he can get -- at a low, low price.

NATO increases presence in Ukraine
Obama calls on Europe to defend Ukraine
NATO challenges with Russia

No one even discusses whether Putin can keep Crimea, which he claimed without a shot being fired. Whether he ultimately annexes Eastern Ukraine or simply drives home the message that it has deep ties to Russia and that Moscow will expect to be consulted regarding its fate, he knows he is in the negotiating position of strength.

He knows for two reasons. First, he sees that neither the United States nor its European allies have much appetite to stand up to him. Time after time as he tested them -- in Georgia, in Ukraine, in Syria -- they grumbled and then blinked. They are too self-absorbed and caught up in domestic problems. And frankly, they don't care that much about Georgia or Ukraine or Syria.

Also, he has discovered that NATO and the West are designed to confront extreme threats, not the moderate, incremental, creeping gains he has achieved. NATO effectively has two settings when it comes to aggression in Europe's east: off and global thermonuclear war. He has worked the middle ground and the lack of resolve of his opponents with considerable skill. He also knows the truth. He is merely toying at the periphery of NATO and frankly, rhetoric aside, he is no threat to regions deeper into Europe.

Putin is a distraction with which NATO is ill-prepared to deal. It faces much greater threats: The spread of Islamic extremism is destabilizing the world from Africa to Asia. Although NATO is equally ill at ease in confronting that deepening crisis, with extremist foreign fighters passing through or hailing from NATO member states, it faces an even bigger crisis from within: a leadership void. The European Union lacks the will, the culture and the institutional mechanisms to make real unified foreign policy. The United States is in a moment of seeming confusion about its role in the world. The revitalization of the alliance everyone is calling for is a good idea, urgently needed, but there are few signs it is really on the horizon.

As a consequence, Putin can watch the NATO show and enjoy it for what it is: a diversion. The rhetoric might get heated. Some might suggest that he, for all his cool calculation and his so far effective gambits, is the mad man in this scenario. But watching the current version of this superannuated, divided, leaderless alliance, he knows that when it comes to standing up to him in Ukraine, NATO is the house of cards.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT