I’ve often defended President Obama from critics who condemn his foreign policy as vacillating and weak. But I don’t understand what he’s saying and doing about the fate of Ukraine. Or, rather, I’m baffled, even troubled, by the contradiction between what he’s saying and what he’s doing.
At his speech in Estonia on Wednesday, Obama denounced Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “brazen assault” on the most basic international principles, vowed to “stand with the people of Ukraine,” and even opened the door to possible membership in NATO. Yet, just last week, at an Aug. 28 press conference (which he called to condemn Putin’s incursions), Obama firmly stated that the crisis did not justify sending American troops or weapons, nor has he since taken steps to alter this calculation.
One could make a case for this week’s lofty rhetoric or last week’s realpolitik-infused restraint—but not for both, simultaneously. And to speak of noble principles, while acting on narrower interests, only raises false hopes—and sows deeper disillusionment once they’re dashed.
What is to be done to stop Putin’s meddling in Ukraine? The honest answer (which Putin and, I suspect, Obama both know) is not much. Ever since this crisis erupted in February, it’s been recognized, by those who know anything about the region’s history and politics, that no Russian leader, least of all Putin, would allow Ukraine to break away from Moscow’s orbit and join the European Union. For 1,000 years, Ukraine has been too close to Russia, as a market, a supplier, and a culture to let that happen. Early on in the crisis, Timothy Garton Ash, the finest chronicler and celebrator of Eastern Europe’s independence movements of the past quarter-century, wrote that the best hope for Ukraine would be “a halfway functioning state” that has “signed an association agreement with the EU but also have close ties with Russia.”
In his actions, Obama seems to grasp this geopolitical reality. It explains his reticence to get too involved—certainly to get militarily involved—in the conflict. He may also know some recent history. When the West won the Cold War, the Soviet Union imploded, and Boris Yeltsin’s Russian Federation lay supine in the aftermath, President Bill Clinton expanded the realm of NATO to include many former members of the Warsaw Pact—but he (and President George W. Bush after him) stopped short of including Ukraine, for four reasons. First, polls revealed that not many Ukrainians wanted to join NATO. Second, it was generally thought that running NATO right up to the Russian border might be a bit too provocative. Third, Crimea, which at the time was part of Ukraine (and is still recognized as such by almost every nation, despite Putin’s annexation), was the base for the Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet; it seemed pretty brash, even by early post-Soviet standards, for NATO to swallow up Russia’s main blue-water port.
Finally, senior U.S. officials asked themselves whether they really wanted to go to war against Russia in order to defend Ukraine—and answered, “no.” (Article 5 of NATO’s treaty demands that an attack on one member be treated as an attack on all. It is taken very seriously, and has been invoked only once—ironically, by the European members, who offered to come to America’s aid after the Sept. 11 attacks; George W. Bush waved away the generous sentiment, offending them all.)
In this respect, not much has changed, nor should it. Is the United States or any other NATO member going to war for Donetsk? No, and everyone pretty much realizes this.
So it’s odd that Obama should suddenly be raising expectations that something has changed, when his actions reflect otherwise—unless he announces a new policy at the NATO summit, in which case we should all start to ask the same questions that Clinton and Bush administration officials asked when they considered, then reconsidered, offering fast-track membership to Ukraine all those years ago.
It’s odder still that Obama should be holding out these golden hopes on the eve of the NATO summit before an audience of Estonians, who are desperate for American reassurance as the Russian bear awakens with a growl from its post–Cold War hibernation.
Unlike Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, the three tiny Baltic nations—which were once captives of the Soviet empire—are members of NATO. In the most potent line of his speech, Obama said, “The defense of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius”—the Baltic capitals—“is just as important as the defense of Berlin and Paris and London. … You lost your independence once before. With NATO, you will never lose it again.”
This line roused the crowd to applause, but it’s hard to say whether it eased their nerves. Some might weigh his words against the contradiction between his rhetoric and action on Ukraine. Some might also be disturbed (I am) by his final words: “Freedom will win,” he said, because the “basic human yearnings for dignity and justice and democracy do not go away. … So long as free peoples summon the confidence and the courage and the will to defend the values that we cherish, then freedom will always be stronger and our ideas will always prevail, no matter what.” Stirring words for the U.N. General Assembly perhaps, but not for a crowd whose relatives struggled for freedom with courage and confidence, against Nazis, then Communists, but for many years lost.
To allay the fears roused by Putin’s violence and bluster, Obama and the other major Western leaders need to let up on the flowery prose (of which the Balts and others like them have heard too much through the years) and focus more on specific actions.