The Troubling Difference Between What Obama Says and Does About Vladimir Putin

Military analysis.
Sept. 4 2014 12:06 PM

Eastern Contradictions 

There is an enormous gulf between what President Obama is saying about Ukraine and what he appears willing to do.

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Obama did some of that in the Estonia speech. He outlined plans to deploy more American weapons and troops in the Baltic nations, and to conduct joint exercises with the Baltic armies. NATO has discussed creating a “rapid deployment force” that can deal with threats to the eastern European members. Already, for several months now, the United States has been sending more weapons to these newer NATO members, most notably Poland, which were once part of the Warsaw Pact and which, in his wildest dreams, Putin would like to control once more.

At their summit this week, NATO’s leaders would be smart to step up all these efforts. Ever since the Cold War ended, NATO has been looking for a mission, and here it is—the defense of Europe: the alliance’s founding mission, one that logically fits (they’re all in Europe after all), and one that they performed well for half a century.

But what of Putin’s dreams, wild or otherwise, and what of Ukraine? Putin recently told a European leader that he could “take Kiev in two weeks” if he wanted. Kremlin spokesmen say his words were taken out of context, and they may have been. Let’s stipulate that it was a flippant way of saying, “If I’d wanted to take Kiev, I’d have already done it.” Either way, the statement is true, and everyone knows it. Whether he could hold on to Kiev for a long time after taking it, in the face of guerrilla resistance—that’s another matter; logistics and sustained offensive operations were never the Russian army’s strong suit. Still, the point is this: Given Russia’s proximity to Ukraine, given Putin’s overwhelming interest to keep Ukraine in Moscow’s sphere, and given the fact that Putin’s interest in doing this far outweighs any Western nation’s interest in pulling Ukraine away—if Putin wants to have his way with Ukraine, there’s little that anyone can do about it.

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Above all, Putin wants to hang on to Ukraine to keep it from joining the European Union. He dreads this notion not just for the obvious reasons—the long economic and cultural ties—but also for what it would mean to his own political survival. Poland and Ukraine started out from roughly the same place, politically and economically, at the end of the Cold War. A quarter-century later, Poland, a member of the EU and NATO, is thriving; Ukraine is floundering. If Ukraine joined the EU and went through its own Polish revival, the people of Kazakhstan and Belarus—Putin’s last remaining allies—would rebel, and so, very likely, would the people of Russia itself. They western-leaning ones have been quieted by Russia’s prosperity under Putin, and even they like his show of strength, his break from the humiliations they suffered under Yeltsin. But to see even Ukraine doing well in the Western sphere might rouse them to rebel once again.

So what should the West do about Ukraine? The idea of going to war against Russia, over the fate of Ukraine, is just batty, and therefore so is the flirtation with inviting them into NATO (which, if it really happened, would require us to go to war, immediately after the signing ceremony).

Two courses are possible. The first is to encourage Ukraine to accept Putin’s seven-point cease-fire plan, which he issued today. It’s a transparent offer of surrender, but it might at least end a war that Kiev can’t win. The plan essentially involves turning Ukraine into a “federation,” which would turn the eastern provinces into a semi-autonomous enclave loyal to Moscow, which would severely weaken Kiev’s central government and thus make them even more dependent on Russia, forcing them to turn away from the EU. In fact, if Ukraine’s President Poroshenko accepts Putin’s deal (which he may have no choice to do), his government is almost certain to collapse, since he promised his people a military victory over the “separatists” in Donetsk and a unified Ukraine—neither of which was plausible without Putin’s cooperation. No way was Putin going to agree to some political arrangement that seemed forced on him as the result of military defeat. Once Poroshenko went that route, he was doomed.

The second course (which isn’t necessarily incompatible with the first) is for the West to flood Kiev with economic assistance and investment—as much as $30 to $40 billion, in the first year alone. That’s the only way to keep Kiev from getting squeezed dry by Putin, and thus sucked back into Moscow’s orbit.

For now, we may have no choice but to let Putin have the eastern districts of Ukraine. Sending weapons to Kiev would help the Ukraine army resist, but for how long? As for Crimea, honest officials admit that Crimea is gone, probably forever, though that doesn’t mean any civilized nation has to recognize its status diplomatically.

But the West could still help the rest of Ukraine stave off economic pressures from Moscow and perhaps even turn it into a beacon—the “halfway-functioning state,” with a modicum of prosperity, that Garton Ash hoped for.

The question is whether the Western leaders feel they have an interest in doing this—and the will to put up the cash. This at least is a sort-of-plausible course of action. If we don’t want to go that far to “stand with the Ukrainian people,” as Obama put it, then the notion of going to war for them, or inviting them to join NATO, should be put off the table. No sense making the neglected feel betrayed.

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