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Vladimir Putin
, who once spared President Obama from having to launch a war he had promised to fight but had no stomach to wage in Syria, is sorely testing the boundaries of Obama’s reticence to enforce international boundaries. While Obama has been quite willing to use American force in assassinating terrorists, he has gone to great lengths to avoid invoking America’s superpower status to deal with aggression on the nation-state level. Russia has seized control of the strategically invaluable eastern part of Ukraine, home to warm water ports, oil infrastructure and lots of Russians. It’s also right next door to the most problematic provinces of Russia, the Islamist hotbed of the Caucasus. A ruler of the “Great Russia” school that holds the country’s empire rightfully spreads to include all the Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe, was not going to let European-backed rebels take this plum position just because they toppled the Russian client government in Kiev.  So what’s the U.S. response? The message from Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry is essentially that Putin has already lost, the Russian strongman just doesn’t know it yet.

[“Well I think [Russian President Vladimir Putin] is playing chess and I think we're playing marbles. And I don't think it's even close” –House Intelligence Committee Head Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., on “Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace]

Putin plays the angles - Many in the West have been waiting for the “end of history” for two decades now, as less-enlightened leaders come to see that economic interdependence and a move toward liberal democracy has made such gambits pointless and ultimately damaging. Many Russians, however, look for history to resume with a vengeance after the post-Cold War lull and with Moscow elevated to its rightful place of primacy. Making the rounds of several administration-friendly Sunday chat shows ahead of a visit to the provisional rebel government in Kiev, Kerry deplored the idea of any military response, discussing a combination of diplomatic isolation for Russia and economic aid ‘of a major sort’ to the rebel government. Talk and trade will eventually describe new boundaries for Ukraine, and new spheres of influence for world powers in the region. But Putin is betting that his plays will leave Russia in much better position when the eventual deal is cut. Even the grouchiest-sounding statements from the Obama administration affirm the reasonableness of Putin’s strategic aims – protection of ethnic Russians, etc. Like in Syria, the hope seems to be that aggression now will yield a more favorable accommodation when diplomats get to the business of redrawing treaties and boundaries.

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