- - Thursday, March 6, 2014

Could the Obama administration have handled Ukraine more poorly than it has thus far? The short answer is that while anything is possible in an infinite universe, it is not easy to imagine a worse approach to a country whose fate the administration claims is important to the future of Europe.

As a result, though Russia’s and Ukraine’s leaders — former and current — have the largest share of responsibility for today’s crisis, and our European allies have their own piece as well, the Obama team has systematically made things worse rather than better — with far-reaching consequences.

Consider the facts. Last fall, American officials knew that Ukraine’s decision to sign or not to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union would be highly consequential for Moscow.

They knew that Russia had not hesitated to employ its economic leverage over Ukraine in the past. They knew that the EU was asking then-President Viktor Yanukovych simultaneously to make painful and unpopular economic reforms and to release his principal political opponent from prison — steps that together could have resulted in his losing in a planned 2015 election and possibly going to prison himself.

How could they have been surprised that Moscow would press Mr. Yanukovych to abandon the deal? Why did they apparently expect, in the absence of any real financial help from Europe, that Mr. Yanukovych would stand firm?

If Ukraine really matters in the way that U.S. and European officials have themselves argued, the administration should have offered to ease the pain for Mr. Yanukovych and pressed the EU to do the same.

A Russian-speaking eastern Ukrainian president wanting to bring the country into Europe was a unique opportunity. Had Washington and Brussels truly helped him (however despicable a president he may have been), Moscow would not have the leverage it now enjoys.

Getting him to sign the deal would have avoided the protests that followed his refusal to do so and everything since. Not doing so was a massive failure of leadership and strategic vision.

Once Ukraine’s politics started to unravel, the Obama administration fundamentally misunderstood dynamics inside the country. U.S. officials appeared to assume that since many ethnically Russian or Russian-speaking eastern Ukrainians supported the EU Association Agreement and disapproved of Mr. Yanukovych personally, the country as a whole was largely behind the opposition.

But anger over Mr. Yanukovych’s corruption was and is not the same as support for the largely western Ukrainian opposition movement and particularly its visible fringe elements, something that quickly became clear when the parliament, the Supreme Rada, voted to downgrade the status of the Russian language in one of its first moves after removing the former president.

This instantly alienated much of eastern Ukraine and Crimea from both the opposition and the United States — and it handed Moscow a wedge to drive through the country.

The administration similarly gave away America’s moral standing in saying nothing about the Rada’s removal of Mr. Yanukovych when the body did not follow Ukraine’s constitutional procedures for impeaching the president.

This contributed to an impression in eastern Ukraine, Crimea and Moscow that the United States and the EU care much less about democracy than they care about having the opposition in charge of Ukraine’s politics.

Earlier leaked conversations between U.S. officials assessing who should and should not be in a transitional government had already laid the groundwork for this thinking. (Remarkably, the same administration appointee who apologized to European officials for U.S. eavesdropping apparently failed to consider the possibility that others might listen in to American officials using unsecured cellphones.)

Finally, the Obama administration took no meaningful steps to discourage Russia’s occupation of Crimea.

Strikingly, even after President Obama humiliated himself and the United States by doing nothing after declaring that Syrian President Bashar Assad “must go” and that Syria’s use of chemical weapons would be a “red line,” senior American officials seemed to think that Russian President Vladimir Putin — who has much more leverage at his disposal than Mr. Assad — would pay attention to warnings of “grave” consequences from Cabinet officials on U.S. talk shows.

The president and his top advisers keep complaining that Mr. Putin is living in the 19th century rather than the 21st century, but they are the ones who increasingly appear to occupy a fantasy world. Mr. Putin has created realities in Crimea that cannot be undone through stern statements or canceled summits.

Worse than that, Ukraine’s new realities likely cannot be reversed without the United States choosing between a costly, escalating confrontation with Russia, whether military or otherwise, or a negotiated settlement conceding far more to Moscow than would have been necessary if Mr. Obama had showed real leadership from the beginning.

Attempting to eject Russia from Crimea with economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure is likely to expose significant rifts between the United States and Germany, as well as within the EU.

Before using its energy leverage in Europe, Moscow may respond to this by sending S-300 missiles and other military hardware to Iran, pursuing mischief in Afghanistan, or helping Mr. Assad to win in Syria rather than simply avoiding defeat.

Negotiating with Mr. Putin won’t be simple either, especially for someone with Mr. Obama’s fanciful worldview. Talks may also carry high political costs for a president already carrying significant domestic- and foreign-policy baggage.

This leads to a final question: Just how much is Crimea worth? It may prove to be the price of incompetence.

Paul J. Saunders is executive director of the Center for the National Interest. He was a State Department senior adviser during the George W. Bush administration.

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