In Ukraine as in Syria, the ‘Obama Doctrine’ Rules: No Military Aid

The president won’t arm Ukraine or use U.S. forces despite Russian troop deployment.

Armed men, believed to be Russian servicemen, stand guard outside an Ukrainian military base in Perevalnoye on March 13, 2014. Russia on Thursday deployed troops and military equipment along Ukraine's eastern border, but on Friday the nation's foreign minister said no invasion was imminent.  
National Journal
Michael Hirsh
March 20, 2014, 1:47 p.m.

Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials said Thursday that they are not con­sid­er­ing arm­ing the Ukrain­i­an mil­it­ary, even as they raised alarms about the de­ploy­ment of Rus­si­an forces along that coun­try’s south­ern and east­ern bor­ders. It amoun­ted to an­oth­er it­er­a­tion of a pat­tern ob­served in the two-year de­bate over Syr­ia’s civil war, an emer­ging “Obama doc­trine” in which the only pres­sure tools con­tem­plated in a crisis are non­leth­al aid and eco­nom­ic sanc­tions.

“Nobody wants the out­come here to be a full-bore mil­it­ary con­flict between Ukraine and Rus­sia,” said a seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial in a con­fer­ence call with re­port­ers, al­though he earli­er in­dic­ated the pres­id­ent was “deeply con­cerned by the po­s­i­tion­ing of Rus­si­an forces in south­ern and east­ern Ukraine.”

At the same time the ad­min­is­tra­tion an­nounced more sanc­tions against Rus­si­an of­fi­cials, as well as a “crony bank” called Bank Rossiya, Rus­sia’s 17th largest, which is con­trolled by Yuri Koval­chuk, whom the Treas­ury De­part­ment calls the “per­son­al banker” to Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin and oth­er seni­or of­fi­cials. One U.S. of­fi­cial prom­ised that the ad­min­is­tra­tion was “work­ing act­ively to pre­pare ad­di­tion­al sanc­tions.”

But crit­ics of Obama’s re­sponse to Putin’s light­ning an­nex­a­tion of Crimea say that “drib­bling” out sanc­tions won’t be enough, in the words of Eric Edel­man, a former U.S. am­bas­sad­or to Fin­land in the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion and to Tur­key in the George W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion. He says “it’s a mis­take” to rule out mil­it­ary leth­al aid (cur­rently the ad­min­is­tra­tion has an­nounced only that it is send­ing MREs — meals ready to eat — and oth­er non­leth­al as­sist­ance). “I think it’s vir­tu­ally in­vit­ing Putin to move more quickly,” said Edel­man, now a fel­low at the Cen­ter for Stra­tegic and Budget­ary As­sess­ments. “It’s the boil­ing-frog prob­lem. At some point we have to get their at­ten­tion.”

He said he agrees with Sen. Marco Ru­bio, R-Fla., who wrote in an op-ed in The Wash­ing­ton Post on Thursday that much harsh­er sanc­tions and dip­lo­mat­ic isol­a­tion of Rus­sia is needed. “It is shame­ful that even as Rus­sia at­tempts to carve up Ukrain­i­an ter­rit­ory, Ukraine’s re­quest for weapons, in­tel­li­gence shar­ing, and oth­er as­sist­ance has been turned down by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion,” Ru­bio wrote. “We also need to de­ploy ad­di­tion­al mil­it­ary as­sets and even U.S. per­son­nel to our al­lies, in­clud­ing Po­land and the Balt­ic states.”

The de­bate over how to re­spond to Ukraine’s crisis is be­gin­ning to par­al­lel, to some de­gree, the con­tro­versy over Obama’s re­fus­al to send leth­al mil­it­ary aid to the Syr­i­an rebels dur­ing the three-year-long civil war. It wasn’t un­til last sum­mer, after the White House de­term­ined that the Syr­i­an re­gime had used chem­ic­al weapons, that it in­dic­ated some weapons would go to the rebels. But the ad­min­is­tra­tion has been very slow to do that, and after ex­trem­ist rebels seized ware­houses where U.S. aid was stored, the State De­part­ment sus­pen­ded all sup­port for a time. Rus­sia, mean­while, has been ro­bustly sup­port­ing Syr­i­an lead­er Bashar al-As­sad with mil­it­ary aid all that time.

Some of the harsh­er crit­ics of the pres­id­ent, like Sen. John Mc­Cain, have sug­ges­ted that Putin moved in­to Crimea cal­cu­lat­ing that Obama would re­spond in just this non­mil­it­ary way. “Vladi­mir Putin must be en­cour­aged [by] the ab­so­lute timid­ity,” Mc­Cain said on MS­N­BC. “The pres­id­ent should have said we are go­ing to provide mil­it­ary as­sist­ance to Ukraine and that it will be in de­fens­ive weaponry.”¦ It makes me less op­tim­ist­ic about Putin ex­er­cising re­straint in east­ern Ukraine.”

In an in­ter­view Wed­nes­day, Obama said he is “not go­ing to be get­ting in­to a mil­it­ary ex­cur­sion in Ukraine.”¦ What we are go­ing to do is mo­bil­ize all of our dip­lo­mat­ic re­sources to make sure that we’ve got a strong in­ter­na­tion­al cor­rel­a­tion that sends a clear mes­sage.”

The ques­tion is wheth­er the mes­sage be­ing sent is be­ing re­ceived.

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