Opinion

The Great Debate

No drama in Obama’s Ukraine policy

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.

Odessa: Ukrainian port that inspired big dreams

Tensions have been rising in many corners of Ukraine as the threat of a Russian intervention looms. Ukraine’s Black Sea port of Odessa is one such corner of dispute between Moscow and Kiev, where macro-battles have been transformed into a seemingly endless chain of micro-conflicts.

Supporters of both countries have taken to marching through the streets, ominously threatening each other. The Ukrainian government is trying to wrest control of the local oil refinery — one of the country’s most important — away from a Russian bank. Tension is visible in the smallest aspects of life.

Odessa’s role as a site of unbridled Ukrainian-Russian competition is not surprising. Though within Ukraine, the city is overwhelmingly Russian-speaking. Prominent Russian political figures regularly proclaim their right to take back what was theirs — from Alaska to Finland.

Obama: Ineffectually Challenged

President Barack Obama is in a funk. Americans are coming to see the president as ineffectual. That is a dangerous perception.

Obama’s job approval rating is at risk of dropping below 40 percent. Democrats may lose their majority in the Senate this fall. It may be difficult for the president to accomplish anything during his last two years.

In the March NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, 42 of registered voters say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate endorsed by Obama. Only 22 percent say they would be more likely to vote for Obama’s candidate.

from Nicholas Wapshott:

Crimea: Too small to matter

Crimea is permanently lost to Russia.

That is implicit in President Barack Obama’s remarks about where the Ukraine crisis heads next; the terms of the Paris talks between Secretary of State John Kerry and the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and the West’s rejection of military action to hurl back the occupying Russian forces.

That Crimea is gone forever is also the view of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who declared, “I do not believe that Crimea will slip out of Russia’s hand.”

It is now generally accepted in Washington that short of sparking a shooting war, Crimea is lost and will now always be Russian. President Vladimir Putin, presiding over an economy of $2 trillion, barely equal to California, has roundly defeated the United States and the European Union, with a combined worth of more than $34 trillion.

from Compass:

Putin’s action is no surprise

Surprise is the least forgivable sin of statecraft. Yet nothing has so characterized the Ukraine crisis as the West's continuing surprise at Russia's behavior.

The past 30 days have provided almost daily reminders of the deep disconnect between Western expectations of what statecraft would -- and ought to -- look like in the 21st century, and the reality of how the Kremlin seeks to assert its interests in the world.

From the outset of this crisis, the West consistently underestimated the strategic significance of Ukraine, and Crimea, to Russia. The West also assumed that the threat, and subsequent reality, of economic sanctions would alter Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategic calculus. One month later, Russia has irreversibly annexed a region of Ukraine and left the West divided and floundering in its response.

from Anatole Kaletsky:

Forget the drama: A solution for Crimea

President Vladimir Putin has disastrously miscalculated and Russia now faces deeper isolation, tougher sanctions and greater economic hardship than at any time since the Cold War. So declared President Obama after the NATO summit in Brussels.

European leaders have sounded even tougher than Obama, though less specific. Some whose countries lie far from Russia -- for example, British Prime Minister David Cameron -- have whipped themselves into a fury reminiscent of King Lear: “I will do such things -- what they are, yet I know not, but they shall be the terrors of the earth.”

For more specificity we must turn to pundits. Geopolitical experts have predicted global anarchy because of the violation of postwar borders; economists have warned of crippling trade wars as European financial sanctions collide with Russian energy counter-measures, and eminent financial analysts have argued that investors and businesses are dangerously under-pricing enormous geopolitical risks.

from Ian Bremmer:

The G7 and the limits of Russia’s ‘political isolation’

 

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama delivered the major address of his weeklong trip to Europe, focusing on the Russian incursions into Ukraine and the coordinated Western retaliation. “Together, we have isolated Russia politically, suspending it from the G8 nations,” Obama said. For annexing Crimea, Russia was punished with temporary exile from this coalition of advanced industrial democracies, a group of Western countries that collectively act on their shared values.

There is just one problem: Russia never shared these values, and the G7 has neither represented global interests nor driven the international agenda for quite some time.

There are a few reasons why that’s the case. Even among countries with similar values and political systems, it can be difficult to align interests, as we’ve seen with the varied Western response to Crimea. Second, as new players have emerged in recent decades, the global power balance has shifted, leaving the G7 representative of a smaller piece of the pie. Any organization that does not include China, for example, is not truly global.

Putin’s new ‘values pact’

Now that Russia President Vladimir Putin has swallowed Crimea, the question becomes: What if the peninsula doesn’t satisfy his appetite for new Russian territory? What if the only thing that will satiate his hunger for power is the goulash known as eastern Ukraine? Or does he then move on to Moldova, and then on and on?

Indeed, while the world watched the protests in Kiev and the Sochi Olympics last month, the Moldovan territory of Gagauzia quietly held a referendum about whether or not to join Russia if the rest of the country opts for stronger ties to the European Union. Its citizens, just like those in Crimea, have argued that they would be economically better off on Putin’s planet, rather than as meager satellites in the Western solar system.

The prospect of joining Russia, of course, sounds far better on paper than in reality. The promise of benefits is likely to evaporate when robust Western sanctions throw Russia’s economy into a steeper downturn. The ruble has already lost almost 9 percent of its value this year against the dollar. Many have argued (myself included) that very soon Putin won’t be able to survive the international blowback.

Reaching for a deal on Crimea

There is a disturbing air of inevitability in Western capitals surrounding Russia’s annexation of Crimea. A growing consensus views this scenario as a rough analogy to  Moscow’s recognition of Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia after the 2008 war — perhaps more severe, but still manageable.

Such complacency is misplaced, however. The consequences of the annexation of Crimea are not manageable. The moral high ground we currently occupy isn’t worth it.

Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s triumphalist speech on Tuesday, the United States and the European Union should not assume that Crimea is lost. Instead they should be working overtime to prevent annexation.

Putin’s imperial hangover

President Vladimir Putin’s impulsive incursion into Ukrainian territory has left Russia more isolated than at any time since the Cold War. Predictably, the European Union and the United States have loudly objected. More to the point, however, no country has rallied to Russia’s defense.

Such deafening silence reflects the degree to which Putin’s thinking is out of step with the modern world. With this action, Putin has revealed himself to be an imperial thinker in a post-colonial world.

Putin grew up at a time when Russia was the unquestioned center of a communist empire that had managed to suppress national challenges for decades. So while the rest of the world was dismantling their empires and transforming colonies into nations, the Soviet Union retained its empire until 1991. Putin — as the leading representative of the last Soviet generation — acquired the mindset of Russia’s natural hegemony and never accepted the post-Soviet republic’s place in the expanding community of nations.

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