Ukraine’s troubles are not about Obama’s weakness

May 15, 2014 

A good deal of U.S. commentary on Ukraine has focused on whether President Barack Obama is being tough enough. The debate is both unrevealing and unhelpful to resolving the serious issue of how to handle a newly expansionist and nationalist Russia.

It is unrevealing because any U.S. leader would struggle to contain Russian actions in the space that falls within Russia’s former empire and outside the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. George W. Bush failed to prevent the Russian invasion and dismemberment of Georgia in 2008. And history is littered with other failures to change Russian and Soviet behavior.

The debate is unhelpful because it ignores the art of the possible, in terms of how far ahead of the European Union the United States can afford to get in arming Ukraine or sanctioning Russia, before the U.S. becomes the issue and splits Europe.

That is a cherished goal of Russian President Vladimir Putin, as it was of Soviet leaders in the past.

The case for sanctions isn’t simple. No sanctions can achieve the return of Crimea to Ukraine. Nor will they persuade Putin to give up on the goal of ensuring that Ukraine remains within Russia’s sphere of influence: He can’t afford to win Crimea but lose Ukraine. At best Putin can be cajoled into cutting a deal in which he stops short of provoking a civil war in Ukraine, splitting the country in two, strangling its economy or forcing its long-term destabilization.

Even with no guarantee that tougher sanctions can save Ukraine, though, they are needed to set limits for future Russian actions. Putin needs to have his assumptions about Western disunity and weakness proved wrong, and his recent call for separatists in eastern Ukraine to postpone Sunday’s referendum on independence offers little comfort there. He remains several steps ahead of the West.

The most interesting historical parallel for Ukraine is probably the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In the thick of events in 1979, as now, the U.S. appeared powerless to stop the Soviet intervention and unable to marshal the support of its allies for tougher action.

The U.S. did, however, arm the mujaheddin, Muslim fighters who battled the invaders in Afghanistan, and a decade later Soviet forces withdrew. We’ll have to see what happens in Ukraine in 10 years’ time.

Bloomberg News

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