- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Joseph R. Biden said Wednesday that ending the Russia-Ukraine conflict is a key test of U.S. and European leadership for this generation — but specialists say the vice president laid out no new American strategy for countering Russian aggression, and the Obama administration seems content on staying the course with economic sanctions and continued diplomatic outreach to Moscow.

Mr. Biden outlined the challenges facing Ukraine, and Russia’s ongoing hostility in the region, during a speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington. He defended U.S. cooperation with Russian Vladimir Putin on issues such as halting Iran’s nuclear program but at the same time stressed the world community simply cannot allow Moscow to impose its will on eastern Europe.

The vice president said it’s up to the U.S., NATO, the European Union and other regional players to act.

“There’s a price tag here. What happens in Ukraine and how the West and the world responds has, I think, consequential implications for the nature of international order in the years to come, in particular the bedrock principles of security, territorial integrity and the inviolability of borders,” Mr. Biden said. “President Putin is wagering that he has greater staying power than all the parties I just mentioned have. In Ukraine, he’s betting he can outlast the current pro-reformist European government … President Putin also is trying to scare our allies and partners with the threat of a new and aggressive Russia.”

The U.S. and its European allies have responded to Russian aggression in Ukraine with a host of economic sanctions targeted at officials in the Putin regime and specific sectors of the Russian economy.

The U.S. also has continued diplomatic communication with Moscow in an attempt to calm tensions in eastern Ukraine, where violence between Ukrainian military forces and pro-Russia rebels has continued despite a cease-fire — known as the Minsk Agreement — between the two sides. More than 6,000 people have been killed since the fighting broke out in April 2014.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry recently met with Mr. Putin earlier this month in Russia in an effort to achieve true peace.

But the administration so far has resisted sending lethal arms to the Ukrainian military and other steps that many U.S. lawmakers believe are necessary to secure the peace. Mr. Biden seemed to leave the door open to providing lethal aid, calling the issue a “debate worth having.”

Still, specialists say Mr. Biden’s speech Wednesday indicated that no major change in the White House’s policy is forthcoming.

“He didn’t promise anything new. There are no new goodies for the Ukrainians. I think it was kind of a recapitulation of what our strategy has been. No sign of backing down, but also no announcement that anything else is in the pipeline,” said Jeffrey Mankoff, deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The U.S. and its allies, Mr. Mankoff said, essentially have ceded some ground to Russia. The Crimean Peninsula — which Moscow claims as its own territory following a highly suspicious referendum last year — likely is lost, he added.

“Crimea has basically been secured for Russia to the point we’re not even really talking about it,” Mr. Mankoff said. “It’s one of those things we’ve acknowledged is going to be part of the landscape, like other frozen conflicts in that part of the world.”

President Obama discussed the situation in Ukraine Tuesday with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg during an Oval Office meeting. Public statements by both men also suggested no new plan for dealing with Russia’s actions.

“We discussed Crimea, Ukraine, and the importance of the full implementation of the Minsk Agreements. That’s the path to peace, and I urge all parties to fully implement the Minsk Agreements, and Russia to stop supporting the separatists and to rid all its forces from eastern Ukraine,” Mr. Stoltenberg said.

Mr. Biden also said the chilly relations between the U.S. and Moscow will not affect efforts to slow Iran’s nuclear program. Russia, along with the U.S., Britain, Germany, France and China, is seeking a deal that would slow Tehran’s nuclear ambitions in exchange for some relief from economic sanctions.

“It makes sense to cooperate where there’s a clear mutual interest as long as you’re not being asked to back off,” the vice president said.

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