In Ukraine, Obama’s Biggest Test

Forget Iran and Syria. Everything now depends on a show of diplomatic strength that will isolate Putin.

Anti-government protesters throw cobblestones as they clash with the police on Independence Square in Kiev early on February 19, 2014.
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Michael Hirsh
March 2, 2014, 6:39 a.m.

Barack Obama sud­denly faces the toughest crisis of his pres­id­ency as he con­fronts Vladi­mir Putin over Ukraine, and how he re­sponds over the next few days could define his leg­acy. It is a crisis that has ap­peared to erupt in his face, in a swift and un­ex­pec­ted turn of events. And yet in many re­spects what has happened in the Crimean pen­in­sula is no sur­prise at all. It has been a con­front­a­tion in the mak­ing for nearly a quarter cen­tury: Obama is in ef­fect deal­ing with the back­lash to east­ward-ex­pan­sion­ist policies that pred­ate the end of the Cold War and span the pres­id­en­cies of Ron­ald Re­agan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clin­ton and George W. Bush.

The Rus­si­an pres­id­ent’s de­cision to take con­trol of the bor­der re­gion of Crimea with some 6,000 troops, os­tens­ibly to de­fend eth­nic Rus­si­ans liv­ing in that part of Ukraine, is in some ways the last-ditch Rus­si­an re­sponse to what Mo­scow per­ceives as a two-dec­ade peri­od of in­cur­sion by the United States and the West. Through the coun­try-by-coun­try en­large­ment of NATO and the European Uni­on, Wash­ing­ton and West­ern Europe have been gradu­ally mov­ing in­to what used to be seen as the So­viet and Rus­si­an sphere, and dur­ing this peri­od Rus­si­an con­ser­vat­ives have ten­ded to view Wash­ing­ton as a bully con­stantly pok­ing a stick at Mo­scow’s self-es­teem. Putin’s en­tire rise to polit­ic­al power was built on his pledge that he would per­mit no more dis­in­teg­ra­tion of Rus­sia, and most of what he has done as pres­id­ent, in­clud­ing his concept of a “Euras­i­an Uni­on” and his at­tempts to wean the now-ous­ted Ukrain­i­an Pres­id­ent Vikt­or Ya­nukovich from the EU, has been about re­as­sert­ing Rus­sia’s his­tor­ic power in that part of the world — push­ing back the re­lent­less tide of the West.

And so Crimea, which many Rus­si­ans see as their his­tor­ic blood-broth­er and where the Rus­si­an Black Sea fleet is still quartered, is truly Putin’s “red line.” 

As a res­ult, Obama and his part­ners in the G-8 and the West must now wrangle with some grim real­it­ies: First, a mil­it­ary re­sponse is un­think­able between the nuc­le­ar-armed former ad­versar­ies of the Cold War. The night­mar­ish out­come that Dwight Eis­en­hower avoided in 1956, when he de­clined to re­spond to the So­viet in­va­sion of Hun­gary, and that John Kennedy found a way out of when he tested but did not pro­voke So­viet re­sponses over Ber­lin and Cuba, is still something that an Amer­ic­an pres­id­ent must think about. (Ac­cord­ing to the Arms Con­trol As­so­ci­ation, the U.S. still has about 5,113 nuc­le­ar war­heads, and Rus­sia has at least 4,462.)

Just as im­port­ant, Putin un­der­stands all this very well. He also knows that the 140,000 Ukrain­i­an land forces are in no po­s­i­tion to take on his own. This is true not least be­cause they are still, in an­oth­er leg­acy of the Cold War, ar­rayed in the west­ern part of the coun­try rather than along the bor­der with Rus­sia, with the bulk of them in Kiev and Odessa and Carpath­ia to­ward the south­w­est. Did Putin vi­ol­ate in­ter­na­tion­al law by in­vad­ing and make him­self look like a hy­po­crite be­cause pre­vi­ously he has been a stout de­fend­er of oth­er na­tions’ sov­er­eignty (for ex­ample, in Syr­ia)? Yes, he did — but he also prob­ably doesn’t care a whit. “We’re not go­ing to fight Putin for Ukraine. He knows it,” former Un­der Sec­ret­ary of State and NATO am­bas­sad­or Nich­olas Burns said in a phone brief­ing with re­port­ers on Sunday. “There are no good op­tions. It’s ob­vi­ous that Putin starts with a ma­jor stra­tegic ad­vant­age.”

At the same time, however, it is crit­ic­al that Obama re­spond strongly, and that this re­sponse be swift, some dip­lo­mat­ic ex­perts say. At stake is not only the fu­ture of Ukraine, where the chaot­ic­ally dis­or­gan­ized op­pos­i­tion to Ya­nukovich is wait­ing and won­der­ing, but in the Middle East and throughout Asia, where many lead­ers have taken to ques­tion­ing Amer­ica’s com­mit­ment to the world. After pledging and then back­ing down from strikes against Syr­ia last year, and stak­ing his pres­id­ency on the with­draw­al from Amer­ica’s wars, Obama now has something to prove: He can take ag­gress­ive ac­tion. Wheth­er he likes it or not, Putin and oth­er world lead­ers ap­pear to view him as in­de­cis­ive and un­will­ing to take risks.

The only reas­on­able re­sponse, then, must be a power­ful dip­lo­mat­ic thrust to isol­ate Putin and make im­me­di­ately clear the costs of mov­ing bey­ond Crimea in­to the rest of Ukraine, ac­cord­ing to ex­perts such as Burns. The risks for Obama in this are huge but he may have little choice but to take them. Even though he needs the good will of Mo­scow to re­solve the nuc­le­ar talks with Ir­an and peace ne­go­ti­ations over Syr­ia, Obama might have to gamble that if he leads a de­cis­ive, united world re­sponse to the Crimean in­cur­sion, it will at once im­press the Rus­si­an pres­id­ent and make Putin worry about his and Rus­sia’s in­ter­na­tion­al im­age, a con­cern of the Krem­lin’s that was so ob­vi­ous dur­ing the just-con­cluded So­chi Olympics. Putin must be made to cal­cu­late that fur­ther re­cal­cit­rance not only over Ukraine but over Ir­an and Syr­ia as well will only isol­ate him fur­ther.

Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry’s de­scrip­tion of Putin’s move as an “act of ag­gres­sion” on Sunday was a start. The next and most ob­vi­ous step, say dip­lo­mats like Burns, should be to boy­cott the forth­com­ing G-8 sum­mit in So­chi and, more im­port­antly, en­list the oth­er G-7 coun­tries to ex­pel Mo­scow from the G-8 al­to­geth­er un­til it stands down from what is clearly a vi­ol­a­tion of in­ter­na­tion­al law. Obama should also sus­pend ne­go­ti­ations over a bi­lat­er­al in­vest­ment treaty and en­list the help of an of­ten more hawk­ish Con­gress, call­ing for a second round of “Mag­nit­sky” sanc­tions against Rus­si­an lead­ers.

At the same time, the United States and Europe should im­me­di­ately agree to a massive eco­nom­ic aid pack­age for Ukraine. The protests in Kiev that began last year were touched off by Ukraine’s eco­nom­ic straits and the ques­tion of wheth­er mem­ber­ship in the European Uni­on was forth­com­ing, and a show of eco­nom­ic force now will speak louder than an army. These re­sponses should not be dragged out, not with Putin and the Ukrain­i­ans hanging on Obama’s every move. “Time is im­port­ant,” says Burns. “Sym­bol­ism is go­ing to be im­port­ant.” In oth­er words, the last thing Obama should be do­ing now is con­ven­ing a months-long policy re­view as he did with Afgh­anistan or Syr­ia.

An­oth­er step Obama could take is to call for a vote in the UN Se­cur­ity Coun­cil call­ing on Mo­scow to res­cind the au­thor­iz­a­tion to use force. As former NATO am­bas­sad­or Ivo Daalder puts it, “Rus­sia will of course veto such a res­ol­u­tion, but it will be im­port­ant for the oth­er mem­bers (in­clud­ing China, which staunchly op­poses such in­ter­fer­ence in in­tern­al af­fairs of an­oth­er state) to stand to­geth­er against Rus­sia.” In ad­di­tion, even though NATO is not ob­lig­ated to de­fend Ukraine, it should be called upon to de­liv­er a strong state­ment re­it­er­at­ing its pub­lic sup­port for Ukraine’s in­de­pend­ence and sov­er­eignty.

This is far and away the most brazen re­sponse we have seen from Mo­scow since the hu­mi­li­ation of the Cold War’s end. It is part of the same battle that so defined the 2012 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, when GOP nom­in­ee Mitt Rom­ney called Rus­sia Amer­ica’s “No. 1 geo­pol­it­ic­al foe” and stirred up Putin over mis­sile de­fense de­ployed in Po­land and oth­er coun­tries. It is much more per­il­ous than what happened in the former So­viet Re­pub­lic of Geor­gia in 2008, when the re­gions of South Os­se­tia and Ab­khazia split from Geor­gia and Rus­sia re­cog­nized both ter­rit­or­ies as in­de­pend­ent coun­tries. Both ter­rit­or­ies are now un­der Rus­si­an con­trol, in ef­fect, and Putin may wish for the same out­come with Crimea and the Rus­si­an-dom­in­ated por­tion of east­ern Ukraine. That may well hap­pen — but per­haps it shouldn’t come without con­sid­er­able cost to him.


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