In his May 28 speech to the U.S. Military Academy, President Obama asserted that America’s “ability to shape world opinion helped isolate Russia right away” in response to its invasion of Ukraine. Yet Vladimir Putin has hardly appeared isolated recently: He has dined with French President Francois Hollande, met other G7 leaders, and participated in last week’s commemorations for the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
Having earlier warned Putin that he needed to end his belligerence toward Ukraine, the leaders of the world’s great democracies gave him the clear impression that they would prefer to put recent tensions in the past. While Obama has talked of expanding the sanctions regime if Russia failed to end its military actions, leading European countries have resisted stronger measures. Obama began his European trip intent on reassuring Ukraine and other vulnerable European countries of the democratic world’s resolve. At the trip’s conclusion, resolve seemed in short supply, American leadership was in question, and Ukraine’s crisis had actually worsened.
As European leaders competed for space on Putin’s schedule, the forces that are laying siege to Donbass actually stepped up their attacks. Russian military veterans regularly talk to the foreign press, bragging about “brotherly assistance” and announcing plans to extend their reach over Ukrainian territory. They even showcase their advanced weaponry.
NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, General Philip Breedlove, said last week, “Russia is continuing to destabilize Ukraine…. Russian irregular forces, Russian-backed forces, and Russian financing are very active in eastern Ukraine.” He went on to describe Russia’s efforts as “very well led, very well financed, and very well organized.” Comments like these are unwelcome to European leaders eager to return to business as usual, even as the death toll from the violence mounts and Ukraine’s ability to secure its eastern borders is eroding badly.
During a joint press conference on May 2 in Washington, Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned Putin that if he disrupted the Ukrainian elections, he would trigger more sanctions. The elections, hailed widely for meeting international standards, were nonetheless badly disrupted in eastern parts of Ukraine, with many polling stations closed. Those living in Crimea, which Russia annexed in mid-March, were completely disenfranchised. No sanctions were announced, as American and European leaders seemed to accept as progress the fact that Russia had limited its disruption to Ukraine’s eastern regions.
Obama has said he wants to maintain a united U.S.-EU position and to avoid unilateral sanctions. There is no question that a unified response, including more hard-hitting sanctions, would be the preferred option—but this is highly unlikely. Obama is letting the perfect (unity with the EU) be the enemy of the good (unilateral U.S. sanctions). As was made disturbingly apparent this week, there are huge divisions among the 28 EU states. Europe’s economic ties to Russia dwarf American trade with Moscow. And as President Hollande made abundantly clear, economics trumps Ukrainian sovereignty.
The United States shares blame for the West’s abject weakness. In the name of improved relations with the Kremlin, Obama has ignored the many warning signs over the years of Putin’s malign intentions toward his neighbors. It is encouraging to see NATO beef up the defenses of member states bordering Russia—but this does nothing to help Ukraine currently under attack. Russia’s proxy forces employ modern weapons to down Ukrainian aircraft and pound Ukrainian neighborhoods, but the Administration steadfastly refuses to supply Kyiv with the kind of military aid that can make a real difference. By confining our aid to non-lethal material, we limit the new Ukrainian leadership’s ability to defend its homeland and signal to Putin our fear of being seen as “provocative” instead of aiding an important country in need.
A serious response to Russia requires strategic thinking, political courage, and long-term commitment. Obama must abandon the false dichotomy that a prudent foreign policy is an either-or exercise between military intervention and passivity. In Ukraine’s case, this means providing Kyiv with serious military weaponry. On a broader level, it means doing more to support Russia’s other neighbors by ensuring NATO has a clear mission to protect Europe from aggression.
Politically, it demands that Obama make clear that he is prepared for protracted conflict with Russia unless Putin ends his policies of aggression. This requires determination and purpose, not treating Ukraine as a nuisance that we secretly hope would quietly go away after its election. And at some point soon, it may mean unilateral U.S measures in the face of European wobbliness.
Right now, Putin hears French leaders talk about completing the sale and delivery of amphibious assault ships that would significantly enhance Russia’s military capability. He hears Merkel say, “This is not about threats. It’s important to make clear that we want dialogue.” And he hears Obama say that “if we see some responsible behavior by the Russians over the next several months, then I think it is possible for us to try to rebuild some of the trust that has been shattered during this past year.”
Just what would those steps have to be? Expressing a willingness to discuss the future of Ukraine while continuing to destabilize the country? Ending violence in eastern Ukraine? Or returning Crimea to Ukrainian control?
After last week, Putin’s view of his rivals in the democracies must have reached new levels of disdain. Only with resolute and confident American leadership, in tandem with Europe or otherwise, will he feel it necessary to abandon his warlike tactics and imperialist ambitions.