The bombastic smirking of Russia’s Victory Day parades is on a quite new scale this year. And why not? How often these days does a country get to boast to itself that it has grabbed part of some other country’s territory and seemingly got away with it?

How did we clever Westerners get into this mess?

My latest piece for Commentator (also at PunditWire in the USA) looks back to ill-fated speeches in mid-2009 by newly elected President Obama and Vice-President Biden in Moscow and Kiev respectively:

What’s strange (and strangely bad) about President Obama’s speech that day is just how intellectually empty it was. Look how he describes the end of the Cold War:

You are the last generation born when the world was divided. At that time, the American and Soviet armies were still massed in Europe, trained and ready to fight…

And then, within a few short years, the world as it was ceased to be. Now, make no mistake: This change did not come from any one nation. The Cold War reached a conclusion because of the actions of many nations over many years, and because the people of Russia and Eastern Europe stood up and decided that its end would be peaceful.

Well, that’s one vapid way of looking at it. But why not say at least something about the moral and political consequences of communism and the brutish Russian imperialism it represented? And spell out the huge and generous efforts the United States and its NATO allies have been doing to help Russia through the ensuing transition? And what tough reforms still need to be done?

Instead the President stresses that America wants a ‘strong, peaceful and prosperous Russia’, and makes a bold and (it turns out) dramatically incorrect assertion:

There is the 20th century view that the United States and Russia are destined to be antagonists, and that a strong Russia or a strong America can only assert themselves in opposition to one another. And there is a 19th century view that we are destined to vie for spheres of influence, and that great powers must forge competing blocs to balance one another.

These assumptions are wrong. In 2009, a great power does not show strength by dominating or demonizing other countries. The days when empires could treat sovereign states as pieces on a chess board are over.

No they’re not. As we now see, Russia has illegally annexed Crimea and is now busy destabilising huge tracts of eastern Ukraine, justifying its actions in part by the supposedly aggressive expansion of NATO.

The whole sense of President Obama’s major Moscow speech was: I am not Bush! So let’s work together nicely, ok?

Meanwhile down the road in Kiev Mr Biden was saying something, ahem, not quite the same to the Ukrainians (my added emphasis, although the original is pretty emphatic):

President Obama and I have stated clearly that if you choose to be part of Euro-Atlantic integration — which I believe you have — we strongly support that.

We do not recognize — and I want to reiterate it — any sphere of influence. We do not recognize anyone else’s right to dictate to you or any other country what alliances you will seek to belong to or what relationships — bilateral relationships you have.

President Obama made it clear in his visit to Moscow this month: the United States supports Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence and freedom, and to make its own choices including what alliances they choose to belong (sic).

That, translated into Russian, means “If Ukraine wants to join NATO, that’s none of Moscow’s damn’ business”.

In short, Moscow did not have to work too hard to conclude that there was a bit of Soft Cop/Tough Cop going on here. Nothing wrong with that. You do have to nuance your messages for different audiences.

But you have to do it well. This, alas, was intellectually slack and banal:

In short, right from the start the Obama Administration presented a policy face to Moscow and Kiev that was at best naively over-nuanced and at worst misleading. This was no accident. There was a real policy dilemma in play: how to help those former Soviet republics reform themselves when such reforms involve dismantling Soviet-era structures and colossal post-Soviet-era corruption that have links going right into the Kremlin?

… The speeches by President Obama and Vice-President Biden back in 2009 now read awfully because they glossed over the real issues in play. In their not unworthy attempt to strike an unfailingly positive tone, they did not give the Kremlin in particular a frank, hard-headed look at what still needed to be done to work together to clean up Europe after the Cold War, or chart a clear course on how Russia’s – and Ukraine’s – fair security concerns might best be met.

240 dismal weeks later, the US and wider NATO/Western approach those speeches articulated is in ruins. But, worse, nothing new or remotely convincing is appearing to replace it. A horrible textbook example of lofty vacuous self-indulgent speechwriting pretending to be policy.

Speechwriting. It’s not what you say. It’s what they hear.

And when Moscow under current management is going to pounce on anything it can noisily present as ‘double standards’ you have to extra careful in what you say. The Obama administration failed this basic test on this key strategic issue. Results? Horrible.