On a visit to Washington, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko spoke before a joint session of Congress, asking the United States to stand with Ukraine against Russian aggression. More specifically, he asked for increased military aid, including weaponry, which the U.S. has not so far provided, and for Ukraine to be granted a special non-NATO ally status, a request that received a standing ovation. The Washington Post reports:
Poroshenko urged lawmakers to provide more political support, as well as “military equipment, both lethal and non-lethal” to Ukrainian soldiers. “Blankets and night-vision goggles are important,” he said. “But one cannot win a war with blankets.”On Wednesday morning, the White House announced a further $53 million in aid to Ukraine — but no military assistance. Including the latest installment, the United States has provided $219 million in aid to that nation so far this year.The Ukrainian president, who received several standing ovations, urged Congress “not to let Ukraine stand alone in the face of this aggression” and asked for “special, non-allied partner status” for Ukraine.
Asked on CNN later about Obama’s response to the special non-NATO ally status plea, Poroshenko said that President Obama gave him a flat “no.” The Senate Foreign Relations committee, however, unanimously passed a bill sponsored by Senators Corker and Menendez granting Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia that status. The bill is expected to reach the floor in November.The Administration still seems to misunderstand the way that Putin thinks and acts. Putin is clearly testing U.S. commitments over time—previously with his war in Georgia, now with the conflict in Ukraine—and he is already stepping up the pressure on the Baltic republics. In an early example of this, Russian forces kidnapped an Estonian official in his home in early September. Estonia is a NATO member, and the kidnapping came two days after an Obama visit meant to demonstrate US resolution and support in the face of Russian pressure. Meanwhile, Poroshenko alleged to the European Commission that Putin privately threatened to invade Poland, Romania, and the Baltic states.The anemic and apologetic response of western governments to repeated Russian provocations appears to have persuaded Putin that the west lacks the stomach for anything beyond economic sanctions that, it seems, Putin has decided that he can withstand.Whatever his intentions, President Obama is doing an excellent job of making Putin believe that the American president is all bark and no bite: that he will make speeches and empty gestures but that his ultimate goal is to avoid a U.S.-Russia confrontation at all costs.Unfortunately, this course of action is more likely to lead to escalating crises and an ultimate confrontation with Russia than a tough stand up front. American public opinion is less patient that the president; at some point the provocations will be so grave or so explosive that public sentiment will flip over into Jacksonian anger and President Obama will be forced to follow a public opinion that he can no longer control.This has already happened in Iraq; Obama isn’t bombing the country and (despite denials) putting a growing number of American boots back on Iraqi ground because he wants to. He’s doing it because no other course is open to him. Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and his growing pressure on the Baltics risk triggering the kind of sudden turn in American public opinion about eastern Europe that we’ve already seen in the Middle East, and Obama’s long months of passivity and temporizing in the face of Russian provocations and insults are steadily undercutting his standing with many people in Washington and beyond.President Obama is on the verge of losing the confidence of Congress — the Democratic Senate as well as the Republican House. The resolution on Ukraine and its neighbors is one sign of that; the searching criticism his Syria strategy received from both parties is another. Too many senior people in Washington have come to believe that the emperor has no clothes, and Congress is moving to assert itself in his place. The vote of no-confidence that the Foreign Relations bill represents is an ominous sign; Iran’s negotiators, for example, are assessing the White House’s eroding influence on Capitol Hill and drawing conclusions about the President’s ability to steer the kind of agreement they want through the Senate.The last thing this country needs is a foreign policy of equal parts arrogance, militarism and bluster. President Obama’s instinct that we need a quiet life is right. But the tragedy that threatens to engulf the administration is that too many of the actions he takes in the hope of avoiding conflict are those that both signal weakness abroad and make him weak at home.