Updated: 06/04/2014.On his tour through Europe this month, President Obama made his first stop in Poland, where he made an effort to reassure the countries of Eastern and Central Europe of America’s commitment to their security. These remarks presumably were meant to clarify and expound upon his earlier remarks in last week’s commencement address at West Point on May 28. If this was indeed his goal, then he failed at it. Instead of clarifying U.S. intentions, all he succeeded in doing is further confusing his listeners.The picture becomes even more puzzling if you read President Obama’s interview with Steve Inskeep on NPR. Now, I’m not going to analyze how Obama views American leadership, nor will I argue what U.S. foreign policy should be. This is not my piece of cake. Besides, being a Russian citizen, I feel that it would be inappropriate to deliberate on what America’s interests are and how Washington should defend them.However, I would like to offer a few comments on what President Obama said on an area that I hail from, and one that I hope I understand: Ukraine and Russia. The Ukrainian crisis and Russia’s annexation of Crimea have knocked down the post-Cold War order, and we’ve entered this époque of turmoil on President Obama’s watch. Robert Kagan, in his brilliant, breathtaking analysis of our current “Time of Trouble” and the evolution of American foreign policy, wrote that today we may see “a transition into a different world order or into a world disorder of kind not seen since the 1930s.” Meanwhile, President Obama, in his West Point remarks, gives the impression that he believes that America still exercises successful global leadership, and that the world, though irritating at certain points and times, is still quite manageable. Let’s quote several of the things he said about the Ukrainian drama, and I’ll respond to each in turn:Obama: “Our ability to shape world opinion helped isolate Russia right away.”What I see, rather, is an incredibly successful Kremlin attempt to prevent Russia’s isolation. True, Putin was banned, apparently temporarily, from the G-8, and key Western leaders ignored the Sochi Olympics and a high-level meeting. But there are no signs that Putin suffered from these slights. On the contrary, he continues to keep in touch with Merkel and Hollande, apparently enjoying the German Chancellor’s attempts to persuade him to behave. Moreover, the Kremlin has succeeded in broadening its international support base: It has made its own pivot to China (and even tried to cozy up to Japan, with the latter’s apparent consent); and it has also won applause from the global Left-Right International, which hates America and the European Union. Moreover, soon Putin, on the invitation of French President Hollande, will celebrate D-Day in Normandy in the company of other Western leaders. Is this what isolation looks like?Obama: “Because of American leadership, the world immediately condemned Russian actions, Europe and the G-7 joined with us to impose sanctions, NATO reinforced our commitment to Eastern European allies, the IMF is helping to stabilize Ukraine’s economy, OSCE monitors brought the eyes of the world to unstable parts of Ukraine.”In general, I can agree with this statement: U.S. pressure really did create an uncomfortable external environment for the Kremlin. But the “success” that resulted from each of these examples is overblown. Indeed, the U.S.-initiated sanctions gave Putin warning that the West was finally prepared to think about where to draw its “red line.” These sanctions hurt some of Putin’s minions and created problems for the Russian economy that will reveal themselves in the fullness of time. But sanctions can’t change the nature of Putin’s regime, which is driven mainly by domestic considerations.NATO’s commitment to the security of its East European allies looks rather symbolic. (Does the deployment of 600 U.S. paratroopers to Poland and the Baltic states really provide them with “reassurance”?) To be sure, on June 3, at the start of his European tour in Poland, President Obama promised to strengthen the U.S. military contingent in the Eastern Europe and to ask the U.S. Congress for $1 billion for this purpose. Other NATO members will have to agree to this American initiative—that is, assuming Obama doesn’t renege.The IMF is still in the process of figuring out how to help Ukraine. It could be that the resulting IMF plan will provoke a new rebellion of unhappy Ukrainians, tired of their unending journey through the “vale of tears.”OSCE monitors had nothing to do with bringing the Ukrainian conflict to the world’s attention, because they simply avoided the areas of real violence.How could we call this leadership, if it eventually ends in half-measures and imitation?Obama: “And this mobilization of world opinion and international institutions served as a counterweight to Russian propaganda and Russian troops on the border and armed militias in ski masks.”I even pinched myself while reading this line. What “counterweight”? Russian propaganda has proved to be an exceptionally effective instrument of war, disorienting not only Russians and Ukrainians in the east but also broad segments of Western society. “Putin has won the propaganda war over Ukraine, and the West is divided,” writes Spiegel. In fact, the West has been smashed by Russian propaganda warfare: The leading Kremlin broadcaster, Russia Today, has surpassed even CNN in YouTube viewership: With 1.2 billion views, only the BBC is ahead of RT globally. The Kremlin has awarded more than 300 media figures with medals for their efforts in the propaganda war with the West, and they have earned those medals. Is the American president aware of the fact that the West is losing this war?As for the Russian troops, they have not totally withdrawn from Ukraine’s borders, and they could return there at a moment’s notice. The “armed militia in ski masks” hasn’t an inkling that the “mobilization” of the world opinion has contained them; global opinion and international institutions are nothing to them. Their bloody war against the Ukrainian state continues even now.Obama: “Standing with our allies on behalf of international order, working with international institutions, has given a chance for the Ukrainian people to choose their future—without us firing a shot.”This is perhaps the most frustrating example of a misunderstanding of reality on the part of the leader of the world’s sole superpower. President Obama here is claiming credit for something that neither America nor the West had any influence on. Ukrainians went to the polls and elected their President even as the West wrung its hands—as it had been doing for months—about how to help Ukraine without irritating Putin too much. Now the U.S. President wants to privatize the Ukrainians’ achievement: Wasn’t there anything else he could find to boast about?“This is American leadership. This is American strength”, concluded Obama. If this is what passes for “leadership” and “strength”, then I’m worried for the United States, and for the world.In his NPR interview, President Obama reconfirmed his glowing appraisal of his Administration’s own successes. He again claimed that it was the United States—that is, his policy—that “has changed the balance and the equation in Ukraine.” I repeat: It was the desire of millions of Ukrainians to have a normal life that changed the equation, despite the West’s hesitation and paralysis. As more evidence of his stunning success, Obama again cited Putin’s “pulling his troops back from the borders of Ukraine.” The President doesn’t appear to understand that, if this is evidence of anything, it’s that Putin has moved on to more sophisticated means of influencing developments in Ukraine. His massing of troops along the border—a blunt instrument designed to blackmail Ukraine and the West into accepting a lesser evil in order to avoid a greater one—had accomplished its purposes and was of no further use.President Obama views Putin as a leader who “was operating from a position of weakness.” This is right, but only if you take the long view: This type of regime is destined to fall eventually, but for the time being Putin has an 82 percent approval rating; he hardly looks or feels weak. I imagine that perhaps Putin believes he is stronger that his American counterpart, and that Obama owes him for getting him out of the Syria trap he walked himself into. I would even hazard a guess that, in Putin’s view, the U.S. reaction to the Ukrainian crisis is a reflection of weakness and indifference. Anyway, risk-takers, like Putin, often outplay those, like Obama, who are risk-averse.Moreover, when President Obama explained Putin’s actions by the fact that the latter “felt as if he was being further and further surrounded by NATO members,” it was clear that he accepted the Kremlin’s explanation for its actions. In reality, Putin is hardly troubled by NATO, which lost its mission a long time ago. The Russian political class, which is happily integrated into the societies of NATO countries, certainly has no fear of NATO. Russian “NATO fear” is a propaganda pill that, as we can see, has been swallowed even by the U.S. President.I would agree with Obama that the “other side [that is, the Russian system] is going to be on defense.” However, for the time being this system is creating problems for the West, and President Obama has shown that he has only a vague understanding of these problems. Or perhaps he fully understands them but is trying to sort them out by following an old, obsolete script. I don’t know which is more dangerous, the first or the second.Imagine how the Kremlin might react to Obama’s recent rhetoric: “He wants to look as if he won? Fine with us. Now he can’t admit failure. This means he’s ready to look for a deal to save face. Or maybe he’ll just ignore what he can’t influence anyway, which is also fine by us!”We should give the President some credit for adapting and adjusting his rhetoric in recent days. In Poland, he did speak more persuasively in defense of principles like “territorial integrity and sovereignty and freedom.” Indeed he had to, because his Polish audience would hardly have accepted his earlier “Yes we did!” style of rhetoric. Nevertheless even these remarks show us where the best of intentions lead. My guess is that the President’s promises in Warsaw to increase the American military presence in Europe will frustrate all sides: Western Europe (and Germany), because it is doing everything in its power not to upset Putin; Poland and several other states in Eastern Europe, because they would rather have troops under NATO auspices than American ones; and Ukraine and Georgia, because they are being left outside NATO’s security zone. In fact that only one who might be satisfied with these promises is Vladimir Putin.Regrettably, President Obama’s recent remarks on the Ukraine crisis are all too familiar and, at best, unrevealing. Once again, he begins by praising himself: “During this crisis, we have provided them [Ukrainians] nonlethal assistance that’s been critical for them.” The United States delivered 300,000 MREs (meals-ready-to-eat) to the Ukrainian military; Washington even denied Ukraine the night-vision goggles and protective armor they had been begging for.President Obama also called for “dialogue” between the Ukrainian government and the “separatists.” But during the question and answer period, he called the separatists a “bunch of masked thugs” who “are creating chaos in a big chunk” of the country. How is one expected to have a dialogue with thugs? And he goes on: “It is possible for us to rebuild some of the trust”; “we expect Ukraine to have strong relations with Russia.” These are fabulous examples of “can do” rhetoric that is completely unmoored from reality.I hope that the President has more clarity and a more constructive vision when it comes to other international issues. Because if he really believes what he has been saying on Ukraine and Russia, then he had better get ready to face a world of surprises.Meanwhile, I don’t think Putin is the one who has blinked.
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Published on: June 3, 2014
Crisis in UkraineObama Blinks
The President’s recent remarks at West Point show that he doesn’t understand the rules of the game he’s playing with Vladimir Putin in Ukraine.