Can Captain Obvious and Secretary Shuttle Save Ukraine?

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

National Journal
Ron Fournier
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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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