Russian President Vladimir Putin must have missed the memo that the West is the chosen ruler of the world and the U.S. president is He Who Must Not Be Disobeyed. They alone are judge of the legality and legitimacy of their own and everyone else's behavior.
The invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein on a trumped-up pretext was not an example of great power aggression in the 21st century because Westerners say it was not. U.S. senators and officials joining street protests to overthrow Ukraine's elected president is exporting democracy, a fine U.S. tradition. Putin's opposition to the new leader installed in Kiev by a putsch is proof of Russian revanchism. Reclaiming Crimea — whatever its people want — is brutal aggression.
Washington's subordination of American values to U.S. interests is realism; Russian violation of global norms is cynicism. At West Point on May 28, 2014, President Barack Obama insisted: "The United States will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it." In his speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 24, Obama affirmed: "All of us — big nations and small — must meet our responsibility to observe and enforce international norms." Barely five months apart, the two statements are not compatible — no country that reserves the right to use military force unilaterally is committed to obeying global norms. Indeed the second criticized Russian actions in Crimea and Ukraine to defend its core interests.