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Ukraine’s civil strife continues, now verging on civil war. Today in several eastern provinces, haphazardly organized local referenda had been planned to decide whether to secede or demand more autonomy from the national government. Two weeks from today, country-wide presidential elections are scheduled to choose a successor to the overthrown Yanukovich regime. Now, especially given Vladimir Putin’s recent maneuvering, no one knows with certainty whether either vote will even take place, much less whether they will be deemed legitimate.
Since Viktor Yanukovich’s ouster, Russia has aggressively sought to restore its influence in Ukraine. Putin has pressured Kiev militarily by using armed force to annex Crimea; politically by infiltrating agitators and military personnel in unmarked uniforms into several provinces to provoke pro-Russian civilians to physically challenge Ukrainian government officials; and economically by dramatically increasing prices for oil and gas on which the country depends. Putin holds the high cards in Ukraine, and all the local actors know it.
Ukraine’s interim government, by contrast, has been nearly paralyzed by indecision and domestic political turmoil. Internationally, Kiev has won the rhetorical battle with Russia, but America and Europe have failed utterly to provide more concrete support. Sanctions against Russia have been weak, inconsistent and essentially ineffective. Since Russia was already falling into recession, Putin may calculate that whatever the economic damage generated by the Ukrainian conflict (not by the pinprick sanctions), it is more than made up by the enormous surge in political popularity he is experiencing. Indeed, history is replete with examples of governments diverting their populations from domestic economic distress by rallying their support against perceived international threats, and Putin knows his history.
Hence the importance of these uncertain Ukrainian elections. As in the Crimea referendum that preceded its formal annexation into Russia, no one seriously believes that today’s possible local referendum results are in doubt, producing, at a minimum, calls for extensively decentralizing Ukrainian governmental authority from Kiev to the provinces. This is what Putin calls “directed democracy” in Russia, now transported to Ukraine.
Transferring sovereignty to new “republics” in eastern Ukraine would enormously increase Russia’s influence in the culturally, religiously and linguistically Russia-centric portions of Ukraine and enhance its ability to pressure the weakened central government in Kiev. And while “outside agitators” have undoubtedly stirred up trouble in southern and eastern Ukraine, pro-Russian sentiment there is real. Continuing violent clashes such as recently occurred in Odessa, where over 40 people were killed, are the types of incidents Putin and his supporters can use to justify further outright Russian military intervention, as well as to torque up the tensions and emotions of pro-Russian Ukrainians.
The Obama administration has threatened economic sanctions if today’s provincial voting takes place and warned that more sanctions against Russia will follow if the May 25 election is obstructed or stolen. Given the weakness of the West’s response so far, however, Putin almost certainly feels he has little to fear. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent visit to Washington was notable for its indecisive outcome on the question of tougher sanctions. Other European leaders are equally reluctant.
Most important is Barack Obama’s weakness. NATO history abounds with cases where its European members were reluctant to take firm steps against the USSR during the Cold War or afterward to enable NATO to act effectively “out of area” to protect the West’s interests. Time and time again, Washington had to drag the alliance along to ultimate success. The difference today is that Obama has no vision for the West and its future, no strategy for countering Putin’s aggression, no international leadership skills and little apparent interest.
In fact, undoubtedly to Putin’s amazement, Russia might now have an opportunity to strike a paralyzing political blow against NATO itself. Because of U.S. and European weakness, NATO could be so disabled that it poses no further impediment to Putin’s broader ambitions throughout the former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. Putin could never have foreseen such an opportunity at the outset of the Ukrainian crisis but he certainly sees it now.
Washington and Europe’s capitals must decide without further delay whether they are serious about preserving Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity. To date, the West has talked a good game, but beyond that has shown only fecklessness. If the upcoming national elections are subverted, whatever the results in today’s referendum, and the American and European response is, yet again, only rhetoric, Ukraine in anything like its current form cannot be saved.
Sweeping sanctions, rigorously enforced, and decisive political steps like bringing Ukraine onto a clear path to NATO membership might yet work. Unfortunately, there is little evidence that these or other dramatic steps are even under consideration. If not, history will undoubtedly remember Obama as the president who lost Ukraine. And much more besides.
John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
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