Paralyzed By Ukraine, Dumbfounded by Russia

As the cease-fire collapses, Obama cannot commit to the next course of action to counter Moscow. And he’s running out of time.

US President Barack Obama walks to a group photo session with Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit at Yanqi Lake, north of Beijing on November 11, 2014. Top leaders and ministers of the 21-member APEC grouping are meeting in Beijing from November 7 to 11.
National Journal
James Oliphant
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James Oliphant
Feb. 22, 2015, 10:42 p.m.

The slug­gish dis­in­teg­ra­tion of a weak peace deal in Ukraine has come as noth­ing less than a bless­ing for Pres­id­ent Obama. It has helped mask his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s in­ab­il­ity to de­term­ine the best re­sponse to the crisis, and to Rus­sia.

But this res­pite will not last. Giv­en the events on the ground, Obama will soon have to de­cide wheth­er to send weapons and train­ers to the Ukrain­i­an gov­ern­ment and risk turn­ing what has been largely a bor­der skir­mish in­to a ma­jor con­flict by proxy with ser­i­ous im­plic­a­tions for the United States, Europe, and Amer­ic­an in­terests world­wide.

Cer­tainly, Obama has faced over­seas chal­lenges be­fore — most not­ably in Libya, Ir­aq, and Syr­ia. But he has nev­er had to stare down a nuc­le­ar power bent on rees­tab­lish­ing its sphere of in­flu­ence. And he’s nev­er faced an ad­versary with the swag­ger and smarts of Vladi­mir Putin, who hails from a throw­back era of glob­al power polit­ics that pred­ates Obama’s ex­per­i­ence on for­eign policy, and one that the Amer­ic­an pres­id­ent can’t quite wrap his head around.

From all in­dic­a­tions, the pres­id­ent and his aides are down­right torn over how to pro­ceed, mind­ful of the con­sequences of both ac­tion and in­ac­tion. Mean­while, Putin-backed rebels con­sol­id­ate their gains.

That’s mak­ing hawks im­pa­tient. As sep­ar­at­ists last week se­cured con­trol of the stra­tegic­ally crit­ic­al town of De­balt­seve in east­ern Ukraine, Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ors John Mc­Cain and Lind­sey Gra­ham ex­cor­i­ated Obama. At times, they ac­cused him of “hid­ing” be­hind the in­creas­ingly rick­ety cease-fire agree­ment and cling­ing to “any avail­able ex­cuse” to not provide arms and equip­ment to the em­battled na­tion.

Mc­Cain and Gra­ham simply don’t be­lieve Obama has the stom­ach for the fight. (Neither likely does Putin.)

The evid­ence sug­gests they might be right. It’s be­come in­creas­ingly clear that the pres­id­ent has ser­i­ous re­ser­va­tions about arm­ing the Ukrain­i­ans, even as some mem­bers of his ad­min­is­tra­tion — his sec­ret­ary of State, John Kerry, and his new Pentagon chief, Ash Carter, to name two — are in fa­vor of it.

“Pres­id­ent Obama can’t come out and say Ukraine is not a vi­tal in­terest. It’s polit­ic­ally in­ad­miss­ible,” says Si­mon Saradzhy­an, as­sist­ant dir­ect­or of the U.S.-Rus­sia Ini­ti­at­ive to Pre­vent Nuc­le­ar Ter­ror­ism, an in­sti­tute at Har­vard Uni­versity. “But if you look at what he’s really been do­ing, it shows that the U.S. does not want to get dragged in­to a mil­it­ary con­flict.”

SINCE HIS FIRST DAYS in the White House, Obama and his for­eign-policy prin­cipals — Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Ad­visor Susan Rice, top aide Ben­jamin Rhodes, and chief of staff Denis Mc­Donough — have held Wash­ing­ton’s na­tion­al-se­cur­ity es­tab­lish­ment in low re­gard, pre­fer­ring to try and chart what it sees as a mod­ern, 21st cen­tury ap­proach and not be weighed down by Belt­way group­think.

That ap­pears to be have nev­er been more than it is now, when calls for ac­tion from in­siders are turn­ing fe­ver­ish. That makes Ukraine Obama’s biggest for­eign policy test to date, and it’s one time when the pres­id­ent simply can­not af­ford to get it wrong.

The pro­spect of arm­ing Ukraine gained mo­mentum this month after a group of former top-level gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials called for the move in a re­port. (The group in­cluded Strobe Tal­bott, who ad­vised Bill Clin­ton on the break­up of the So­viet bloc, and Michele Flournoy, a policy ex­pert that Demo­crats of­ten tout as a po­ten­tial De­fense sec­ret­ary.) That triggered a fierce de­bate in for­eign-policy circles about wheth­er arm­ing Ukraine would be a show of strength that could cause Putin to think twice about back­ing the sep­ar­at­ists, or wheth­er it could es­cal­ate the situ­ation to a dan­ger­ous de­gree.

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Obama re­mains at­tuned to both ar­gu­ments, the White House says. Yet, the pres­id­ent has re­peatedly talked of there not be­ing a “mil­it­ary solu­tion” in Ukraine and how Amer­ic­an weapons could only, at best, help slow the sep­ar­at­ists’ ad­vances and per­haps save some lives. (“Leth­al de­fens­ive aid” has been Wash­ing­ton’s new fa­vor­ite eu­phem­ism.) Just last week, Kerry’s spokes­per­son, Jen Psaki, re-it­er­ated that “get­ting in­to a proxy war with Rus­sia is not any­thing that’s in in­terest of Ukraine or in the in­terest of the in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity.” Psaki will soon join the White House as its com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or.

Part of what is hold­ing the White House in check is what na­tion­al-se­cur­ity poli­cy­makers call “es­cal­a­tion dom­in­ance.” Simply put, be­cause Rus­sia has more at stake in Ukraine than Amer­ica does, there’s a worry that send­ing soph­ist­ic­ated weaponry to the Ukrain­i­an gov­ern­ment will only up the ante. Dir­ect in­ter­ven­tion by the United States could lead Putin to end the pre­tense that he isn’t back­ing the sep­ar­at­ists and push him to send the Rus­si­an mil­it­ary fully in­to Ukraine, cre­at­ing the kind of con­front­a­tion between the two na­tions that was largely avoided dur­ing the dec­ades of the Cold War.

Moreover, the pres­id­ent’s post­war for­eign policy, as re­cently re­stated by Rice, is, at root, all about step­ping back and let­ting oth­er na­tions with a great­er tan­gible stake in the out­come do most of the heavy lift­ing. That means the ques­tion of Ukraine is largely viewed as a European prob­lem, by vir­tue of prox­im­ity if noth­ing else. (And, in­deed, the U.S. was not at the table when last week’s cease-fire was ne­go­ti­ated in Minsk.) Rice, in a speech earli­er this month not­ably said that Putin’s re­gime did not pose an “ex­ist­en­tial” threat to Amer­ica.

More evid­ence of the pres­id­ent’s re­luct­ance came from Obama him­self. In an in­ter­view with CNN earli­er this month, he was openly dis­missive of Putin’s motives, say­ing the Rus­si­an pres­id­ent does not have a co­her­ent plan for Ukraine. That matches up nicely with the be­lief of some for­eign-policy thinkers who ar­gue the best course for the United States is to do little and let the con­flict sput­ter out. They ar­gue that Rus­sia neither has the eco­nom­ic nor mil­it­ary might to pose a threat to Kiev, much less the NATO coun­tries that lie bey­ond.

BUT MANY WHO study Rus­sia for a liv­ing be­lieve the pres­id­ent con­tin­ues to un­der­es­tim­ate both the long-term threat to Amer­ic­an se­cur­ity and Putin him­self. “Putin’s ac­tions are a dir­ect threat to European sta­bil­ity, se­cur­ity, and demo­cracy. As such, they are also a dir­ect threat to U.S. na­tion­al se­cur­ity,” says Al­ex­an­der Motyl, a Ukrain­i­an polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist at Rut­gers Uni­versity. “The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has thus far failed to un­der­stand, or openly ar­tic­u­late, this point — even though a large num­ber of former top poli­cy­makers and aca­dem­ics have in fact stated that the Rus­si­an ag­gres­sion against Ukraine is only part of a lar­ger Putin as­sault on all things West­ern.”

Ukraine by it­self isn’t im­port­ant to Amer­ica’s na­tion­al se­cur­ity in­terests, says John Herbst, a former am­bas­sad­or to Ukraine dur­ing the George W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion who helped write the re­port re­com­mend­ing arm­ing the coun­try. “But Ukraine in this crisis is crit­ic­al. It’s crit­ic­al be­cause, right now — and this is something the [Obama] ad­min­is­tra­tion does not seem to be aware of — the Krem­lin has turned Rus­sia in­to the prin­cip­al na­tion­al se­cur­ity danger glob­ally.”

Those who fa­vor arm­ing the Ukrain­i­ans tend to talk in Cold War terms, see­ing Kiev as just the first dom­ino that could topple be­neath Rus­si­an ag­gres­sion. The way they game it out, Ukraine is ringed by NATO mem­ber states, the Balt­ic na­tions of Es­to­nia, Latvia, Lithuania, Po­land, Ro­mania — all coun­tries that used to fall with­in Mo­scow’s sphere of in­flu­ence.

Should Rus­sia take Ukraine, there would be no buf­fer between Putin and NATO, which means the U.S. could be fa­cing a Guns of Au­gust scen­ario, in which treaty ob­lig­a­tions could yank Amer­ica in­to a European war it doesn’t want. In their mind, the only way to stop Putin is now in Ukraine, by fun­nel­ing in weapons and train­ing its mil­it­ary.

“I am an ad­mirer of Pres­id­ent Obama’s re­straint in the Middle East,” Herbst says. “But I don’t think he un­der­stands big power polit­ics. Big power polit­ics is all about need­ing to re­strain power­ful act­ors whose ac­tions might be dan­ger­ous.”

Some of Obama’s top mil­it­ary lead­ers also haven’t shied away from us­ing more pro­voc­at­ive lan­guage about the crisis.

In a little-no­ticed in­ter­view with the Wall Street Journ­al earli­er this month, the com­mand­er of the U.S. Army in Europe, Lt. Gen. Fre­d­er­ick Hodges, is­sued a warn­ing: “I be­lieve the Rus­si­ans are mo­bil­iz­ing right now for a war that they think is go­ing to hap­pen in five or six years — not that they’re go­ing to start a war in five or six years,” he said, “but I think they are an­ti­cip­at­ing that things are go­ing to hap­pen, and that they will be in a war of some sort, of some scale, with some­body with­in the next five or six years.”

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MUCH OF THE dis­cern­ing of the threat in­volves read­ing Putin’s psy­cho­logy. Is he bent on restor­ing Rus­sia’s ter­rit­ori­al glory or is he an in­sec­ure lead­er who needs to be re­as­sured of his coun­try’s im­port­ance in the glob­al scheme?

What frus­trates for­eign-policy ex­perts on both sides is that the Obama White House can’t seem to make up its own mind about it and seems un­will­ing either to con­front Putin or en­gage him in dir­ect dip­lomacy. Thus there is end­less talk about mak­ing Putin “pay” through sanc­tions that have, so far, failed to de­ter him. It’s a hold­ing ac­tion de­signed to mar­gin­al­ize Putin, which, ex­perts say, only seems to in­furi­ate him. More im­port­ant, there is little from the ad­min­is­tra­tion about an over­all strategy in deal­ing with Rus­sia in a glob­al con­text.

Obama seems, in fact, to go out of his way to not treat Putin as the lead­er of a su­per­power, view­ing him in­stead as a rel­ic of a by­gone geo­pol­it­ic­al age. Obama hasn’t pursed high-level talks with Putin since can­celing a sum­mit meet­ing in Mo­scow in 2013 after Rus­sia gran­ted Ed­ward Snowden asylum. “There are times when they slip back in­to Cold War think­ing and Cold War men­tal­ity,” Obama said then. “What I con­tinu­ally say to them and to Pres­id­ent Putin: That’s the past.”

In all, Pres­id­ents Bill Clin­ton and George W. Bush made 12 trips to Rus­sia. Obama has made just one — and that was in his first year of of­fice. This, des­pite Obama’s ad­mis­sions that he has needed Putin’s help with two of his re­cent most press­ing se­cur­ity con­cerns: Syr­ia’s chem­ic­al weapons stock­pile and Ir­an’s nuc­le­ar pro­gram.

But more crit­ic­ally, isol­at­ing Rus­sia and treat­ing it like a second-rate European na­tion be­lies the real­ity of its nuc­le­ar ar­sen­al. In the wake of the two coun­tries’ de­teri­or­at­ing re­la­tion­ship, Rus­sia said late last year that it would boy­cott a planned sum­mit on nuc­le­ar se­cur­ity to be held in the U.S. And there are grow­ing wor­ries that the U.S. and Rus­sia no longer have the con­trols in place that kept nukes se­cure dur­ing the Cold War, giv­ing rise to fears that a mis­un­der­stand­ing could have leth­al con­sequences.

Putin’s Rus­sia, says Brook­ings’ Jeremy Sha­piro, “is the only ex­ist­en­tial threat the United States faces. Even if it is a low-prob­ab­il­ity out­come, it is a very bad one. I think it’s worth talk­ing about up front.”

Sha­piro does not sup­port arm­ing Ukraine. He says Obama should en­gage Putin dir­ectly to de­fuse the crisis and per­haps even grant Rus­sia some say in the af­fairs of its bor­der na­tions rather than stumble in­to a war in­cre­ment­ally.

While the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has been cool to the very no­tion of for­eign “spheres of in­flu­ence,” Sha­piro notes that the United States, as a mat­ter of policy, has nev­er much cared wheth­er Ukraine is part of the West.

“We are lit­er­ally risk­ing World War III for something we do not want,” Sha­piro says. “We for­get we’re not fight­ing for any­thing worth hav­ing. That’s the real danger.”

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