Obama's Latest Red Line: Ukraine

"The drawing of this second ‘red line’ is infinitely more dangerous and reckless than the first one, in Syria."

Yet another Red Line, Mr. President?

As the death toll mounted in the center of Ukraine earlier this week, president Obama, taking questions alongside the Mexican president in Toluca, was moved to remark on Tuesday:

“I want to be very clear, as we work through these next several days in Ukraine, that we’re going to be watching closely, and we expect the Ukrainian government to show restraint, to not resort to violence in dealing with peaceful protesters…there will be consequences if people step over the line."

In the space of two sentences the president—give him credit for parsimony—made a few things, as he never seems to tire of saying, “very clear.” The first thing he made clear was that he and his administration are willfully misrepresenting what is actually happening in Kiev. His call for the Ukrainian government to ‘show restraint’ in the face of what is now a spectacularly violent far-Right putsch is a rhetorical fantasy dressed up as a warning.

The second thing he made clear was that he is exceedingly comfortable employing double standards when it suits him. Anticipating the president’s remarks, Vice President Biden called Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych on Monday and made clear that Ukraine’s government has a “special responsibility to de-escalate the situation” which continues to spiral out of control in Maidan Square. Mr. Obama, not 24 hours later, warned that there would be “consequences if people step over the line”

Presumably the “people” Mr. Obama is speaking about doesn’t include members of the hardline Svoboda Party, whose members are rampaging through the streets of Kiev setting fires and hurling bricks, Molotov cocktails, and all manner of refuse at the police, who Obama and Biden seem to expect to behave in a manner befitting a Park Service Ranger. The protesters themselves, all presumably quite peaceful (at least at heart), have no ‘special responsibility’ not to ‘step over the line.’

A striking example of what many of us might consider stepping over the line was broadcast on Russian television Thursday. It is a video of an unconscious man who had lost his right eye and is bleeding profusely. Voices can be heard asking “Ambulance? Ambulance?” One of the protesters leans in to check the man more closely and then waves off the camera, saying “No. No ambulance, he is a riot policeman…he is our prisoner.”

Missing too from the president’s comments was some much-needed context. Over the past three or four weeks, every time the Yanukovych regime has made concessions and some kind of truce was in the offing, the radical oppositionists stepped up the violence thereby leaving the regime little choice but to respond. What the opposition knows is what we now all know thanks to our incredibly indiscreet Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland; namely that the United States backs and is actively working towards the goal of supplanting Ukraine’s democratically elected president.

The magnitude of Ms. Nuland’s slip up is gradually becoming clearer and clearer. One can hardly blame the radical opposition for keeping up the pressure; after all, they have definitive proof that the United States government shares their goals. So why settle? The violence they are perpetuating has its logic; and so the crisis continues unabated. And yet for this, there have been no ‘consequences’ to speak of for Ms. Nuland.

There already have been, however, some of those promised ‘consequences’ for the Ukrainian government. On Thursday the New York Times reported that the United States is imposing a visa ban on twenty Ukrainian officials which, according to an unnamed State Department official ‘includes the full chain of command responsible for ordering the violence last night.’ Further sanctions have also been threatened by the U.S. and the European Union. Additionally, the US is said to be monitoring Ukrainian military barracks for signs that Yanukovych may unleash the army to put down the rioting.

If so, what then? Obama saying there would be ‘consequences’ seems to indicate that he is drawing a red line over which Yanukovych dare not cross. The drawing of this second ‘red line’ is infinitely more dangerous and reckless than the first one he drew for the benefit of Bashar al-Assad eighteen months ago, for two reasons.

First, since the president ultimately backed away from his promise of consequences for Assad, the pressure on him from his hawkish national-security team (Rice, Power, et al.) and from the foreign-policy establishment in Washington will likely compel him to act in some fashion against Yanukovych.

Second, any military action—threatened or otherwise; either by the United States or NATO, in response to the still-unfolding crisis in Ukraine will almost certainly be met with a response from the Russian Federation.

And after that, who’s to say?

James W. Carden served as an advisor to the US-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the State Department from 2011-2012.