In Crimea, America Faces a Foreign Policy Puzzle

Last week saw the surprising ouster of Ukraine’s democratically elected president, Viktor Yanukovych, after months of dramatic and violent demonstrations in Kiev’s Maidan Square. The turmoil stemmed from Yanukovych’s refusal to sign an expected agreement with the European Union. Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, responded by sending troops to occupy the Crimean peninsula, an ethnically Russian and strategically important region of the Ukraine.

(c) Mstyslav Chernov/Unframe

(c) Mstyslav Chernov/Unframe

The Russian incursion marked the second time in the last decade that Putin has invaded a Western-aligned country for the purpose of supporting a Russian minority’s separatist ambitions. (In 2008, the Russian military occupied the Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.)

In the American media, the brewing turmoil has been funneled into a familiar narrative. On Sunday’s episode of Meet The Press, moderator David Gregory captured the mood in Washington:

This is a conversation about Obama’s leadership, pure and simple. This is a major test for whether the rest of the world, particularly bad actors, take him seriously when he says to not do something.

That President Obama’s credibility would be questioned at this time is an obvious and inevitable consequence of his inability to hold a credible line in the Syrian conflict. In the early days of Syria’s civil war, President Obama said the country’s president, Bashar Al-Assad, “must go.” (He’s still there.) Then he famously threatened military action if Syria used chemical weapons. In 2013, Syrian forces used sarin gas against civilians. President Obama dithered, and in the end opted for a negotiated solution.

The link between what happened in Syria and Russia’s willingness to flaunt the West’s warnings against military action in the Ukraine is bolstered by the fact that Russia is a back-room actor in Syria’s conflict. There’s also a connection to the standoff with Iran over it’s nuclear weapons program, where the President has also been accused of excessive caution and where, again, Russia is a secondary player.

Much of the criticism is well-deserved. Foreign policy requires a balance between short-term strategic goals and long-term strategic imperatives. Obama has proven himself much more adept at pursuing the former than the latter. Having given a red line warning to Syria, the President’s decision not to follow through did serious damage to the credibility of the office, a commodity of which Barack Obama is only a temporary steward.

But a lot of the criticism is also off target. For example, the contention that this should be, as David Gregory put it, a conversation about Obama’s leadership, “pure and simple,” is beltway self-regard at its finest. The events in Ukraine have local and regional causes to which the United States has, at best, a tangential relationship. Since Ukraine gained independence after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the US has maintained a cordial, but not particularly strong relationship with the country.

In the 1990s, Ukraine decommissioned its nuclear arsenal as the result of a three-party diplomatic effort that also involved the United States and Russia. In exchange, Ukraine was given assurances that its security would be guaranteed. Those assurances are the basis for the current charge that the US is reneging on earlier promises. What that analysis misses is the fact the US was not the only country that promised to respond to a crisis: France, the United Kingdom, and Russia also promised their protection. Both the United States and Russia could credibly argue that any current use of military force is a fulfillment of that assurance.

As if to underline that the American guarantee was always limited in scope, both Ukraine and the United States have, in recent years, backed off from NATO membership for the ex-Soviet country – a move which would have given Ukraine an iron-clad assurance of an American response to external aggression.

If anything, it is the Europeans – who have been actively pursuing EU membership for Ukraine and who are its next-door neighbors – who might have vital interests at play. But as usual, the Europeans are happy to turn to the United States for any necessary heavy lifting.

What’s happening in Ukraine is an example of the new sort of challenge that the United States faces elsewhere: the rise of regional powers that cannot challenge the US globally, but that can do much to thwart American regional interests: in the Pacific, China fills that niche; in East and Central Asia, Russia; and in the Middle East, Iran is making a go of it. The threat is that American influence will be chipped away.

Assistant surgeon Henry Wilkin, of the 11th Hussars, during the Crimean War. Fought in the 1850s as Russia made an attempt to move into the sphere of influence that the Ottoman Empire was slowly vacating, the war left Russia with a tremendous war debt. As a consequence, Alexander II sold Alaska to the United States. Wilkin survived the Charge of the Light Brigade, which would later be immortalized by Tennyson.

Assistant surgeon Henry Wilkin, of the 11th Hussars, during the Crimean War. Fought in the 1850s as Russia made an attempt to move into the sphere of influence that the Ottoman Empire was slowly vacating, the war left Russia with a tremendous war debt. As a consequence, Alexander II sold Alaska to the United States. Wilkin survived the Charge of the Light Brigade, which would later be immortalized by Tennyson.

That sort of slow-brewing, globally distributed threat can keep us from distinguishing when a seemingly-small moment is actually an important precedent – like Syria – but it can also inflate the importance of moderate challenges. In an editorial, The Washington Post accused President Obama of being vague about the consequences Russia would face if it continued its aggression in “the center of Europe.” That’s proof positive that there is no map in the editorial room at The Washington Post, since there is no possible reading of geography that would place Ukraine at “the center of Europe.” But you have to admit, that’s the sort of framing that screams loudly for a forceful response – perhaps even military action.

So let me reframe what’s happening in Europe: a flawed but democratically-elected president was deposed after violent protests, which has led to political instability in parts of the country that felt decisively disenfranchised as a result. Russia, for its part, seems to be trying to do what it can to minimize its own loss by sending troops into a separatist region – something it has recently done elsewhere without an overwhelming response from the international community. Concerning, but hardly a casus belli.

In turn, the President of the United States is struggling to find an effective way to respond short of military action, which would meet with the overwhelming disapproval of the American people and which would commit serious resources to a situation that doesn’t seem to threaten vital American interests.

That will be an enduring challenge for American strategy moving forward, but the temptation in a fast-paced and politically charged news cycle has been to personalize America’s response by asking if the inability to dissuade Russia from acting in Ukraine represents a personal failing on behalf of President Obama. That resonates with the way we, as humans, like to tell stories: with heroes, villains, and personal drama. But it isn’t very insightful: any President would have struggled to keep Russia out of Crimea for the same reason that George W. Bush couldn’t keep Russia out of Georgia: the Russians have more at stake there than we do and they know it.

The real threat to America’s credibility isn’t that we’ll be unable to prevent every geopolitical setback, no matter how small; it’s that we won’t recognize the need to clearly and publicly distinguish between those actions that will invite a full-throttled American response and those that won’t. That could lead to dangerous miscalculations.

President Obama has been criticized for a restrained response in Ukraine, with the implication that he should be willing to do and say whatever it would take to get Putin to back off. That’s naive and dangerous advice. Before drawing any bright lines in the sand, the US should be perfectly clear on what it’s willing to do to hold them. But he’s also been criticized for being vague, which is much more to the point: American threats should be rare, clear, and certain.

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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