Can Captain Obvious and Secretary Shuttle Save Ukraine?

Jay Carney and John Kerry are no substitute for presidential leadership.

National Journal
Ron Fournier
Add to Briefcase
Ron Fournier
April 8, 2014, 5:36 a.m.

While Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin fo­ments un­rest in Ukraine as a po­ten­tial guise to plun­der more ter­rit­ory, Pres­id­ent Obama un­leashes Cap­tain Ob­vi­ous and Sec­ret­ary Shuttle.

Cap­tain Ob­vi­ous is White House press sec­ret­ary Jay Car­ney, the former Mo­scow bur­eau chief for Time magazine who told re­port­ers Monday, “If Rus­sia moves in­to East­ern Ukraine, either overtly or cov­ertly, this would be a very ser­i­ous es­cal­a­tion.”

No kid­ding. Like the time Putin moved in­to Crimea over White House ob­jec­tions — overtly, cov­ertly and per­man­ently? Thrust­ing his lower lip in­to a ser­i­ous-face pout, Car­ney sol­emnly re­vealed noth­ing we didn’t already know. “What’s clear is that this is a res­ult of in­creased Rus­si­an pres­sure on Ukraine,” he said, “and we see it in the troops that have massed on the bor­der.”

What’s also clear: Rus­si­an in­terests are be­hind up­ris­ings and build­ing takeovers in Don­etsk and Kharkiv, an omin­ous echo of Putin’s pre­text for seiz­ing Crimea this year and Geor­gia in 2008. “There is strong evid­ence sug­gest­ing some of these demon­strat­ors were paid,” Car­ney said.

Don’t fret. Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry set aside his feck­less ef­fort to keep Is­rael­is and Palestini­ans at the ne­go­ti­at­ing table to call Rus­si­an For­eign Min­is­ter Sergei Lav­rov. Ex­press­ing “strong con­cern” about “es­cal­at­ory steps” by the Rus­si­ans, Kerry con­vinced Lav­rov to par­ti­cip­ate in talks with U.S., Ukra­ni­an and European Uni­on of­fi­cials in the next 10 days.

This is the same Lav­rov who teased Kerry with talks while Rus­si­an troops seized Crimea.

Whith­er Obama? While it’s true that his op­tions for deal­ing with a power-hungry Cold War­ri­or are lim­ited, the pres­id­ent of the United States isn’t ex­actly an im­pot­ent bystand­er. Obama must real­ize that the events of the last two days threaten to re-ig­nite the crisis. Why not ad­dress them? Why not take ac­tion, rather than threaten it through his tow-headed spokes­man?

Here are a few things Obama could do:

  • Be more en­gaged. Ad­dress the crisis per­son­ally and firmly at every pivot point. There are times when “lead­ing from be­hind” is prudent. This is no such time. And Putin is not the sort of lead­er im­pressed by fin­esse.
  • Send the Sec­ret­ary of De­fense or chair­man of the Joint Chiefs to the Balt­ics to plan joint mil­it­ary ex­er­cises. Same for Po­land, Slov­akia, Hun­gary and Ro­mania, the four NATO coun­tries bor­der­ing Ukraine.
  • Threaten (and be pre­pared to carry out the threat) to ur­gently sup­ply Kiev with weapons should Rus­sia in­vade bey­ond Crimea. Make a show of those pre­par­a­tions.
  • Or­der the En­ergy De­part­ment to hasten ap­prov­al for li­que­fied nat­ur­al gas fa­cil­it­ies. This won’t im­me­di­ately wean Europe from Rus­si­an gas, but if an­nounced with con­vic­tion, it might con­vince Putin that in­vad­ing Ukraine would be a long-term mis­take.
  • Use whatever per­son­al re­la­tions he’s de­veloped among European lead­ers (un­for­tu­nately, re­la­tion­ship-build­ing is not one of Obama’s strengths) to stiffen sanc­tions against Rus­sia. Ul­ti­mately, the only thing short of war that is sure to get Putin’s at­ten­tion is a sanc­tions re­gime like the one that crippled Ir­an’s eco­nomy.

Car­ney has every right to ar­gue that this crisis is Putin’s fault, not Obama’s, and that there are no easy choices, only dan­ger­ous ones. Thanks you, Cap­tain Ob­vi­ous. That’s why we’ve got a com­mand­er-in-chief.

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