WWGD: What would Gates do?

Last weekend, voters in Ukraine opted to place a candy magnate in charge of their government. Petro Poroshenko, a billionaire by virtue of his sweet success as the "Chocolate King," easily outdistanced former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. She conceded, which seemingly sets the stage for a smooth transition to a new and presumably less corrupt central government than that of former President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled the country a month ago, leaving behind a country in tatters. Not to mention a virtual palace of a presidential mansion, complete with solid-gold bathroom plumbing fixtures, a life-sized pirate ship, and a zoo-sized menagerie of rare birds. At the very least, the newest leader could use his own money to buy these luxuries, rather than steal from the country's coffers to collect his own quirky distractions.

Looming in the background is the specter of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who recently told a gathering of CEOs in St. Petersburg that "We are today working with the people in power, and after the election we will work with the newly elected structure." He also said that Russia will "respect and recognize the will of the Ukraine people," while in practically the same breath being more equivocal on the question of officially accepting the election results: "We will watch what will happen."

In 2007, while attending the Munich Security Conference (not his favorite event), then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates listened to a speech delivered by then-President-for-the-first-go-around Putin. Putin characteristically and unsurprisingly upbraided the United States, claiming that the U.S. was using its military power to exploit a "unipolar" world; that the "almost uncontained hyper-use of force" by the United States had destabilized the world. He asserted that "with a thousand years of history," Russians did not need advice on how to conduct its international business.

Gates, as he writes in Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary At War, responded by reworking his speech for the next day, and told an audience that included NATO partners (as well as former KGB Colonel Putin) that, "I have, like your second speaker yesterday (Putin) ... a starkly different background — a career in the spy business. And I guess old spies have a habit of blunt speaking."

Noting that the changed world required new attitudes, Gates said that "we all face many common problems and challenges that must be addressed in partnership with other countries, including Russia. For this reason, I have this week accepted the invitation of both President Putin and Minister of Defense Ivanov to visit Russia. One Cold War was quite enough."

The immediate response was smiles and nods from friends in the room. Gates also received a note from Sir Charles Powell, former national security adviser to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who congratulated him for "[striking] absolutely the right note of wicked humor in swatting Putin and putting him in his place."

That was 2007. So, fast-forward to the current debacle in Ukraine. Does Putin need some "swatting"? I asked Gates that question during an interview on my morning radio program.

"Well, I told President [George W.] Bush after my first meeting with Putin that I had looked into his eyes and seen a stone-cold killer," Gates said. "I think that Putin is a man of the past — past glory, past empire and past power. And I think the only thing he understands is strength, and is power."

Kathryn Stoner, director of the Ford Dorsey Program in International Policy Studies at Stanford University, told me that Putin is looking for a connection to the glory days of the Russian Empire, but not the reconstitution of the Soviet Union, per se.

"He's borrowing different parts of imperial history and Soviet history," she said. For example, Putin's referring to Ukraine as part of "new Russia" borrows from imperial Russian diplomacy-speak, as if Ukraine as an independent nation is some sort of a historical accident, just waiting for a catalyst to set things right again. "Definitely, keeping it (Ukraine) unstable, keeping it turned toward Russia, is his goal," Dr. Stoner said.

Mitchell Orenstein, chair of the Department of Political Science at Northeastern University, told me pretty much the same thing: "They don't mind, I think, moving towards a situation where there's a sort of Cold War-type standoff with the West. That's, in some ways, a preferred outcome."

President Obama is drawing criticisms from frustrated politicians and pundits who think a more interventionist U.S. posture, with more forceful rhetoric and even a physical show of force in the form of troops and weaponry, would make Putin blink.

The president, seemingly always reluctant to fan embers into flames, said at a news conference in South Korea a month ago that "President Putin is not a stupid man," believing that Putin would back down in reaction to a crumbling economy weakened by increasingly stricter U.S. sanctions. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), predictively and maybe even reflexively upbraid the president for damaging U.S. prestige abroad by appearing weak.

Back to Gates, who told me that "I think [Putin]'s trying to create a buffer around Russia with states that look to Russia for economic relations and so on. It basically upends the post-Cold War order that was established in the early 1990s. So, I think he has ambitions that are incompatible with where we thought we were headed in the 21st century. Again, I think the only thing he understands is strength."

By the way, in addition to his years in the CIA, and as defense secretary under George W. Bush and Obama, Robert Gates earned his doctorate in Russian and Soviet history at Georgetown University. Maybe someone should give him a call to talk about options.

Farley is managing editor and host of "The Morning Briefing" and "The Midday Briefing" on P.O.T.U.S., Sirius XM's 24-hour politics channel.

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