Obama is silent as Russia imposes its will on a former vassal
The downfall of the Soviet empire was an American achievement on par with victory against Japan and Germany. It liberated tens of millions of Europeans and Americans from the constant threat of annihilation or enslavement. Sadly and dangerously, however, the Obama administration’s passivity toward Russian advances throughout Eastern Europe and recent events in Ukraine are allowing Russia to reconstitute its old empire.
Luckily, Ukrainians are not taking lightly Russian President Vladimir Putin’s designs on their vast country. Still, the world needs American leadership at this moment. President Obama, having thrown away George W. Bush’s gains in the Middle East, should not now also waste Ronald Reagan’s success in Europe.
Many Americans care about Ukraine. A million of them hail from there, and an additional 1.5 million live in Canada. With 45 million people, Ukraine’s geopolitical importance is obvious to almost anyone except the White House and the State Department.
Ukraine abuts NATO’s southeastern flank. With a long Black Sea shoreline and indirect access to the Mediterranean, it hosts the Russian naval base in Sevastopol, has vast agricultural potential, major ports and a developed heavy industry, including space rocket launchers, the largest cargo planes in the world, shipbuilding and steel factories.
Today, Ukrainians want to become free from Russia not only in law, but also in fact. After Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich broke this promise to the people and refused to sign a much-promised association agreement with the European Union at the November summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, Kiev exploded in protest. Membership in Russia’s Customs Union was Mr. Yanukovich’s next step. Half-a-million demonstrators gathered in Independence Square on Dec. 1 only to be brutally beaten by police SWAT teams.
The Ukranian president acted because Mr. Putin threatened Russia’s southern neighbor with the usual economic sanctions unless Ukraine succumbed to Moscow’s neo-imperial goal. Mr. Putin was also taking advantage of Mr. Obama’s strategic tone-deafness in the Middle East and in the former Soviet Union. Ukraine is but the latest case.
The Obama administration has been mum on all this, with no statement challenging Mr. Putin or supporting the brave demonstrators. Secretary of State John F. Kerry has canceled a trip to Kiev, but he actually should have kept the engagement, and gone there to express a strong pro-democracy message.
He and Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia, could have done much more. They could have intervened early, reassuring Mr. Yanukovich of U.S. support for the association agreement. They could have met with former Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko, incarcerated in Kharkiv. Mr. Yanukovich refuses to release her in an exercise of selective justice many have protested worldwide.
They could have stood with leaders of the Ukrainian opposition and the people in Kiev’s central square, celebrating their choice of independence. It was not to be.
The United States and our European allies could have also provided Ukraine with tangible incentives, such as a coordinated International Money Fund economic-relief package in exchange for comprehensive reforms by a new, competent team of economic technocrats. The United States could also help Ukraine with anti-corruption measures, such as investigating international corruption by some people at the top of Ukraine’s power structure.
There’s nothing new here. This is, after all, an administration that prefers dealing with the Kremlin or Tehran rather than with people expressing a desire for democracy. Its lack of resolve in supporting Ukrainian independence from Russia is now once again creating the wrong optics — that the United States does not care about freedom. Mr. Obama’s message to Ukraine basically has been: “Don’t count on us.”
In his book “Clash of Civilizations,” Samuel Huntington described Ukraine as a torn country. Its west, populated mostly by Catholic-affiliated, Ukrainian-speakers, is staunchly pro-European, while its east and south, populated mostly by Russian speakers, tends to side with Russia. Even that is changing, though. The Russian-speaking urban, educated youth do not aspire to spend their lives as Moscow’s vassals.
The Obama administration should remember the scorn that was poured on President George H.W. Bush after he, too, decided that having a Ukraine that was basically a vassal state to Russia was in our national interest. His 1991 speech in the Ukrainian capital to that effect, widely known as the “Chicken Kiev speech,” remains an indelible stain on Mr. Bush’s record.
Pandering to America’s foes, missing historic opportunities, abandoning friends and ceding geopolitical gains of American victory in the Cold War appears to be the specialty of the Obama administration. It is a tragedy that the people of Ukraine have to pay the price.
Jim DeMint, a former U.S. senator from South Carolina, is the president of the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).