It feels like Ukraine is slipping away. Sanctions haven’t stopped Russian strongman Vladimir Putin from bullying and abusing the country. President Barack Obama says sending U.S. weapons to Ukraine’s military won’t deter Russia. Ukraine’s acting president says its security forces are “helpless” in the face of the separatist militias stirring up unrest and seizing government buildings in the eastern parts of the nation.
Perhaps the prudent course for Obama and European leaders would be to look beyond Ukraine to contain any further ambitions by Putin to exert Russian control over former Soviet countries in Eastern Europe.
That’s not to say that I think the West should abandon Ukraine. But reality is speaking loudly. European nations, led by Germany, seem reluctant to impose the broad business, financial and commercial sanctions that might work because such measures would also damage their economies. Obama concludes, not without reason, that unilateral U.S. sanctions might be ineffective as other nations, some in the West, would rush in to take the Russian business American firms would be forced to abandon.
Less defensible is Obama’s decision not to send arms to Ukraine. His rationale: “Do people actually think that somehow us sending some additional arms into Ukraine could potentially deter the Russian Army?”
Maybe yes. One reason Putin has not invaded eastern Ukraine as he did Crimea, speculate some of the experts, is that he fears getting bogged down in a civil or guerrilla war with Ukrainians who would fight back. So sending small arms, anti-aircraft missiles and anti-tank weapons might indeed have a deterrent effect.
The likeliest outcome is that Putin achieves his aims without an invasion but simply with the threat of force from the tens of thousands of troops massed along Ukraine’s border. Those aims include making eastern Ukraine, in effect, a satellite of Moscow while neutralizing efforts of the Kiev government to move the country into Western Europe’s orbit.
Success in Ukraine may embolden Putin to flex Russian muscle elsewhere in east Europe, notably in neighboring Baltic states that, like Ukraine, have large ethnic Russian politicians. Poland and the Czech Republic also worry about Putin’s “near abroad” ambitions to restore Moscow’s Soviet era influence.
These nations, unlike Ukraine, are members of NATO. That means, as Secretary of State John Kerry put it the other day, “We have to make it absolutely clear to the Kremlin that NATO territory is inviolable, we will defend every single inch of it.”
Strong words. Some possible measures to back them up: Build the missile defense system in eastern Europe planned by the Bush administration but scuttled by Obama in his reset policy with Russia. Stage not token but sizeable NATO exercises in the region. Increase U.S. defense spending. Lobby European nations to contribute their fair share to the NATO forces and budget. Facilitate and escalate efforts to dramatically increase exports of U.S. natural gas to Europe to relieve its reliance on Russia for a quarter of its supplies.
These measures and others could contribute to a new version of the Cold War strategy of containing Moscow and curbing its expansionist goals. Such a program, according to a recent New York Times article, is the president’s aim. But in describing his policy this week, Obama seemed less ambitious: “You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run.”
Obama’s announcement that he will travel to Poland in June is a good symbolic step. But there’s little evidence small ball impresses Putin.