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.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
What is to be done to stop Russian President Vladimir Putin’s meddling in Ukraine?

Photo by Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin via Reuters

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.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan

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.

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.

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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