And the Winner in Ukraine Is...China

America's reaction to the Crimea crisis risks reducing flexibility on a paramount priority.

Here we go again. The Obama administration, confronted with a foreign-policy crisis, is flailing. This time it isn’t Syria, but Ukraine.

The Crimea’s March 16 referendum looms larger each day, but U.S. officials are issuing declarations and little more. America’s paramount goals over the next few days must be to make a final serious effort to preserve Ukraine’s territorial integrity—with a weak hand and very limited time—and to prepare a post-referendum plan to contain the strategic damage from the Obama administration’s latest fumble. If the president and his advisors fail, the only beneficiary would be Beijing.

The crisis in Ukraine is a product of Russia’s desire to restore control over Crimea and of Ukraine’s deep social and political divisions. But in a manner more reckless than feckless, the Obama administration has made matters worse at each step. It is fair to say that the White House “led from behind” as the European Union sought an Association Agreement with Ukraine by failing to press Brussels to do more to secure ousted president Viktor Yanukovych’s signature on the deal—something that could have avoided the crisis and protected key U.S. interests. Once the protests began, the administration essentially abandoned its efforts to persuade Russia that Ukraine’s Western orientation would be “win-win” and instead supported a “winner-takes-all” approach in the streets of Kiev and other Ukrainian cities—something that quickly backfired when a fractured Supreme Rada voted to remove Yanukovych without reaching the constitutionally mandated supermajority and then appointed a new government with only token representation from Russian-speaking regions. Russia has now deployed troops in Crimea, where the region’s legislature likewise went around the constitution in scheduling a referendum on autonomy, and then advancing its date from March 30 to March 16 and adding the option of incorporation into Russia.

After Russian forces established control in Crimea, Obama returned to a policy process that has already failed repeatedly elsewhere: 1) make bold and moralistic pronouncements, 2) put America’s prestige and credibility on the line, and 3) produce no real policy. U.S. policy toward Syria has been the most visible and damaging application of this approach so far, but it is far from the only one. This is how an administration that entered office determined to rebuild America’s image has instead further marred it, discouraged allies, and emboldened foes—grand talk and no action. The administration’s peculiar combination of Bush-era self-righteousness with Obamian instinctive caution, whether through analysis-paralysis or simple timidity, offers the worst of both worlds.

Issuing pompous press statements or fact sheets that approach Bill Clinton’s definition of “is” in their linguistic parsing may be emotionally satisfying, but it does not help to keep Ukraine intact. Nor does it impress Russian leaders who are long past caring about White House bluster or their favorability ratings in Western public-opinion polls. Posturing is not policy. Worse, it is counterproductive when it comes to the one person making decisions about Crimea: Vladimir Putin.

Salvaging Ukraine’s unity requires pragmatic, private and high-level negotiations on significant Crimean autonomy as part of a comprehensive Ukraine settlement with no further delay. Synchronizing America’s and Europe’s positions will be extremely important.

In dealing with Russia, U.S. officials should reiterate that a Russian annexation of Crimea would make Western-Russian relations newly adversarial and that the coming days will provide the final opportunity to avoid that outcome by finding a path forward that preserves Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Specific threats are unwise and will serve primarily to provoke counterthreats, especially if stated publicly.

At the same time, in conversations with Kiev—including during Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s March 12 visit to Washington—the administration should urge restraint and flexibility. Keeping Crimea and calming eastern Ukraine will likely require several steps, including not only very substantial autonomy for Crimea (with guarantees that Kiev will not unilaterally revoke this status in the future), but also a lesser degree of autonomy for some eastern Ukrainian regions and a national-unity government that includes Russian-speaking political leaders. The administration should offer expanded assistance to Ukraine to win its support. The $1 billion already announced is too little.

With Crimea’s regional government, the United States could offer its own commitment as a guarantor of Crimea’s autonomy, modest financial assistance, and a dose of reality: if Russia annexes Crimea, the peninsula will enter a legal no-man’s-land that will constrain its future development. U.S. officials should also seek to persuade the Crimean government to delay its referendum and preferably to remove integration into Russia from the ballot. One option would be to combine a delay in the referendum with a delay in Ukraine’s national elections, scheduled for May 25, if Kiev would agree.

Unfortunately, the odds for success with this approach are less than 50-50 and are decreasing on an almost hourly basis given the scale of the task and the time available. If negotiations fail, the United States must move swiftly after the referendum and Russia’s presumptive incorporation of Crimea to deter Moscow from further intervention and to reassure Ukraine, U.S. allies, and others in the region. Several important realities should guide America’s response.