No drama in Obama’s Ukraine policy

April 22, 2014

Many are asking: How can we stop Russian President Vladimir Putin from moving into Ukraine and seizing a large chunk of its territory in the east? The actions of forces that resemble the Russian special operations troops who created the conditions for annexation of Crimea suggest that other parts of Ukraine may also be in the Russian strongman’s sights.

The fact is, however, we cannot stop Putin. Or, to be more precise, we should not try to stop him physically. Doing so would require military threats or troop deployments to Ukraine. The stakes do not warrant such a step. It is not worth risking World War Three over this.

Ukraine is not a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It does not have a formal security treaty with the United States, and its strategic importance is not great enough to warrant such escalation. Though we can feel for Ukrainians — and reject what Putin is doing — this is a classic case of where the old axiom “We can’t be the world’s policeman” does apply.

Yet we cannot be indifferent to what happens in Ukraine. The stability of the international order has been compromised by Russia’s blatant aggression. The norm against interstate violence and forceful changing of borders has been violated.

In addition, we have a commitment, dating back to the 1994 Budapest declaration, to help Ukraine defend its national security. Under that agreement, Ukraine agreed to give up its nuclear weapons — which served the global non-proliferation agenda and U.S. interests. It also implied a moral commitment not to look away if Ukraine came under threat.

The current situation is complex – and, to some extent, the doing of Ukrainians themselves. The economy has been mismanaged for years by all political parties, and all sides have violated various accords reached in recent months.

So we need to find the right type of response, one that should not be based on a false sense of our ability to prevent Putin from further encroachments. What we can do, however, is make sure that he pays an increasingly high price as his shenanigans snowball.

Putin should be forced to face a choice: economic growth or further military conquests. We need to signal to him that a major military move into eastern Ukraine would be so egregious and unacceptable that Russia would pay a serious economic price for years — well beyond what it has incurred over Crimea. Putin’s presidency would no longer see the return of Russia as a major power, but instead see the great bear’s economy settle into prolonged stagnation.

The choice is Putin’s. Our job is to make it crystal clear.

If Putin still moves a large force into eastern Ukraine, I would also favor shoring up our commitments in the Baltic states. This could include the permanent basing of several thousand U.S. and other NATO ground troops — in numbers and with weaponry that signal they are not there for offensive operations or the liberation of Ukraine.

The stakes just aren’t worth the risk of doing more. But our NATO allies deserve protection and reassurance, especially if things get worse before they begin to stabilize.

So far, the Obama administration is doing a good job with this basic approach.  As bad as the Russian seizure of Crimea was, it was done with minimal violence and some plausible degree of historical and demographic logic.

I am not excusing what Putin did — it was unacceptable.  But I would call it, at some risk of using an oxymoron, moderately unacceptable. Blatant aggression against the heart and soul of Ukraine would have been far worse. And still could be.

So the modest sanctions that we have imposed on Putin’s top cronies over Crimea strike just the right balance. They are tough enough to cause people close to the Russian president to feel real pain. They are not yet enough, however, to weigh down the broader Russian economy.

Meanwhile, the Western world is signaling that it can ramp up sanctions as need be. Our record in punishing Iran for its nuclear program proves we have gotten far better at employing tough and targeted sanctions. Our conversations with Germany, Poland and other European nations about alternative sources of energy show that we are serious about upping the ante by reducing trade in Russian oil and gas if need be. Hopefully, that will not be necessary.

To be sure, given the high degree of dependence of some European countries on Russian natural gas, no economic response to Russian aggression could be extreme in the first place. We cannot simply stop trading with what remains one of the world’s top three energy producers, along with Saudi Arabia and the United States. But we can start taking major steps to reduce the trade, beginning with swifter approval of export licenses for U.S. natural gas. Over time, that dynamic could cut Russian energy exports by a significant amount— 10 percent or 20 percent or even 30 percent?

This kind of economic hit wouldn’t be enough to send Russia back to the Stone Age. But it might just be enough that the prospect of such a setback, leading to possible economic recession in Russia for several years, could get Putin to think twice now.

That may be the best Washington and the rest of the  West can do.  And it may be good enough, in terms of protecting our core national interests.


PHOTO (TOP): Russia’s President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the Security Council at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, April 11, 2014. REUTERS/Mikhail Klimetyev/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Armed men, believed to be Russian servicemen, take cover behind an armored vehicle as they attempt to take over a military airbase in the Crimean town of Belbek near Sevastopol, March 22, 2014. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

PHOTO (INSERT 2): An armed man, believed to be a Russian soldier, stands on guard outside a military base in Perevalnoye, near the Crimean city of Simferopol, March 21, 2014. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

PHOTO (INSERT 3): Delegates pray during the Kurultai, the assembly of Crimea Tatars, in Bakhchisaray, March 29, 2014. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov




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> could get Putin to think twice now.
This will never happen with a thug dictator. rasPutin will destroy Russia in his war with the world and the only thing that can stop him is Revolution in Moscow. August would be a good month for that revolution.

Posted by UScitizentoo | Report as abusive

So if the aggression isn’t blatant then there shouldn’t be harsh sanctions? What pain have the sanctions caused? Their stock market has gone down, but what else? What Obama is doing isn’t enough, and looks like little more than implicit permission for Putin to do more of the same, as long as it’s not too brazen. What’s really needed are sanctions that will cause their elites to feel pain. Putin is probably betting that the West just doesn’t have the will to impose harsh sanctions, and so far he seems to be absolutely correct in that judgement. Obama’s performance has been embarrassing. He, Kerry, and the western Europeans look like effete sissies while Putin looks like a leader with his eye on the prize.

Posted by Calfri | Report as abusive

Lots of flawed thinking in this op-ed piece. Sanctions, less than 100% total blockade of goods and services, particularly half-hearted ones don’t and won’t work. They never have. And to say Iran is proof that they do is completely insane….

Posted by edgyinchina | Report as abusive

Until something akin to the science fiction Star Track’s fantastic matter – antimatter energy source is “discovered” and comes online, fossil fuel – which is in finite supply and diminishing as we speak – remains the major source of energy for the energy hungry world. Building shipping facilities, developing and selling US shale gas takes time and is a temporary band aid solution to Europe’s and Ukraine’s immediate day to day energy needs. Firing up mothballed coal heated electricity generators would add to the already over polluted atmosphere, hastening man made global weather disaster.

Posted by boreal | Report as abusive

No drama. Just an epic blunder. The State Department spent $5bn to unseat a government on Russia’s doorstep and things on the ground have not worked out as planned. that is to say, as imagined. They didn’t plan beyond their own shoelaces.

The ‘West doesn’t have the will’ to impose harsh sanctions because the EU didn’t want this idiocy in the first place, and those sanctions would hurt the EU economy. So we’ve managed to piss off the Russians, half of the Ukrainians, and more than a couple of our allies.

No drama, right. We’re so used to incompetence by now.

Posted by RynoM | Report as abusive

As bad as the Russian seizure of Crimea was, it was done with minimal violence and some plausible degree of historical and demographic logic.

I am not excusing what Putin did — it was unacceptable.

Can anyone explain me why was it bad? Why is it unacceptable?
Why is it that change of borders that has been engineered 20-23 years ago, when the USSR was dissolved, against the will of the majority expressed in a referendum and entailing significant violence, should be perceived as good and acceptable, while its partial undoing, non-violent and with people’s consent, is wrong and unacceptable?

Posted by BraveNewWrld | Report as abusive

“We” “Us” “Our”

No sale here, Mike. Even if you could arrange a fife and drum corp accompaniment.

Wasn’t the entire idea behind all the shale plays and fracking, to do with “our” energy independence?
Not having to rely on middle eastern oil and consequently defunding al queda, and other assorted Terrorists© ?

The same al queda we drone strike in Yemen and Pakistan but arm and support in Syria.
To be fair, the same al queda before they were re-branded and sold to us as mild mannered freedom fighters.

“We” probably won’t be labeling Putin a Terrorist© and drone striking him anytime soon, that would be a fair fight and Russia would promptly remove any doubts we harbored.

No, it’s probably fair to assume that, with the current legislation before the house and senate to remove any bans on exporting our domestically produced oil and gas, and some astronomic private investments in Mineral rights, drilling, untold tens of thousands of miles of gathering and delivery pipeline, LNG plants, transfer facilities, pump stations and other ancillary infrastructure, “We”(?) are looking for a market.

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

We foment a coup in a democratic country friendly to Russia, and we are talking about what is acceptable. And you expect me to get behind sanctions. No thanks.

Posted by jim_seattle | Report as abusive

How many wars have led the U.S. in the last 20 years?
Who is the biggest arms dealer in the world?
What about native population in US?
Which caused the ruin of the emerging countries in 2008 with the subprime?
Will the world one take sanction against all this? May be in future, pretty sure!
Europe is European and it is in the European mind, the U.S. merely trying to impose their spirit and vision, and most importantly, the financial interest.
If U.S. had not funded this false revolution, as it supports other revolutions, nothing would have happened.
The “allies” are beginning to open their eyes and no longer follow blindly the advice of U.S. Read european press, the world move around!

Posted by Blackvelvet | Report as abusive

This is an incredibly offensive article. One European nation (Russia) invades another (Ukraine) both overtly and covertly (tanks in Crimea, provocateurs in Crimea and the east), and it is considered only “moderately” unacceptable? I shudder to think what you would consider “extremely” unacceptable.

Posted by cgsinseattle | Report as abusive

Weak Op-ed. We can sanction Iran to citizen death, but can’t go harder on Russia, who invaded a neighboring country we were are bound to protect, per the Budapest memorandum? And we can’t go harder because of our national interests? Isn’t world safety and nuclear disarmament a national interest? What Russia has done, entering Ukraine and breaking the Budapest deal, tells every other country on the planet to continue building nukes. The US, UK, and Russia will not protect your borders, regardless of what they have signed. Good luck bringing a similar agreement to Iran, or any other country that worries about invasions or has territorial disputes. Google a list of territorial disputes.

Posted by DaMaDaMa | Report as abusive

This and other opinions in Western news outlets have told Putin what he wants to hear.
He can go ahead and invade sovereign nations.

Posted by kiwisaver | Report as abusive

A round of applause for your blog post.Thanks Again. Want more.

Really informative blog post.Really thank you! Awesome.