Ukraine: Obama’s “Provocative-But-Weak Approach”

In the Washington Times, TNI publishers Dimitri K. Simes and Paul J. Saunders chronicle the errors that have plagued the Obama administration’s Ukraine policy. They argue that the administration missed two different opportunities to prevent a confrontation:

...if the administration and the EU had last fall offered half of [the aid package] they are now providing Ukraine, ousted President Viktor Yanukovych would likely have signed the EU deal that he abandoned instead. If the White House and Brussels had been willing to enforce the Feb. 21 agreement, Ukraine would have had a new government without providing the Kremlin a pretext to seize Crimea or leverage for new demands.

The first error was likely one of failing to appreciate what was at stake; the second, of the reflex to endorse anyone who tries to topple an autocrat. After the Russian seizure of Crimea, the mistakes grew increasingly dangerous. It was, Simes and Saunders note, “provocative,” with measures personally targeting senior Russian officials and important Russian financial institutions and “weak”:

Sanctioning officials and tycoons will not change Russia’s conduct. Officials probably removed assets from the United States some time ago and will find other places to hide money. The targeted tycoons are not those most engaged with the West. More important, Russia is not Ukraine — Moscow’s oligarchs have little or no political influence.

On the security front, while it would have been wiser to sow doubt in Putin’s mind as his troops sit on the Ukrainian border, Obama has instead reassured him with repeated remarks that force is not a component of the American approach. Simes and Saunders ask, “Why provide Russia’s leaders a sense of impunity?”

Yet though the West is all but inviting a Russian invasion, all is not lost:

The military requirements of occupying a densely populated and partially hostile region — and possibly facing urban warfare — are the real deterrents. Since there is no clear border between eastern and western Ukraine, commanders may face a choice between a protracted war in the east alone and an effort to eliminate resistance by seizing all of the country. Polls show that Russian citizens grateful for Mr. Putin’s annexation of Crimea would feel differently about a bloody guerrilla conflict.

Accordingly, they argue, NATO should play off this concern:

Mr. Obama or an allied head of state should convey privately to Mr. Putin that NATO would have no alternative to considering immediate and substantial military assistance to Ukraine should Russia go further. This conversation should be private (no press release) and face-to-face, and it should make clear that NATO’s involvement will sharply increase the military costs of any Russian action. NATO generals should also prepare contingency plans to provide rapid and considerable aid to the Baltic states.

Of course, a confrontation like this would be seriously harmful to both parties. And so this threat must be used to support a negotiated settlement:

The United States and the EU should offer a positive alternative...Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski have outlined solutions, including some form of military neutrality for an independent Ukraine able to strengthen economic ties to Europe while maintaining ties to Russia.

The Obama administration would do well to pursue such a course.