Currently the United States is assisting Ukraine against Russia by providing some non-lethal military equipment as well as limited training for Kiev’s army. It has balked at getting more involved in the conflict, rightly so. With that in mind, I had a meeting with a delegation of Ukrainian parliamentarians and government officials a couple of weeks ago. I tried to explain to them why many Americans are wary of helping them by providing lethal, potentially game changing military assistance in what Kiev sees as a struggle to regain control of Crimea and other parts of their country from militias that are clearly linked to Moscow. I argued that while Washington should be sympathetic to Ukraine’s aspirations it has no actual horse in the race, that the imperative for bilateral relations with Russia, which is the only nation on earth that can attack and destroy the United States, is that they be stable and that all channels for communication remain open.
I also observed that the negative perception of Washington-driven democracy promotion around the world has been in part shaped by the actual record on interventions since 2001, which has not been positive. Each exercise of the military option has wound up creating new problems, like the mistaken policies in Libya, Iraq and Syria, all of which have produced instability and a surge in terrorism. I noted that the U.S. does not need to bring about a new Cold War by trying to impose democratic norms in Eastern Europe but should instead be doing all in its power to encourage a reasonable rapprochement between Moscow and Kiev. Providing weapons or other military support to Ukraine would only cause the situation to escalate, leading to a new war by proxies in Eastern Europe that could rapidly spread to other regions.
The Ukrainians were not buying any of that. Their point of view is that Russia is seeking to revive the Soviet Union and will inevitably turn on the Baltic States and Poland, so it is necessary to stop evil dictator Vladimir Putin now. They inevitably produced the Hitler analogy, citing the example of 1938 and Munich as well as the subsequent partition of Poland in 1939 to make their case. When I asked what the United States would gain by intervening they responded that in return for military assistance, Washington will have a good and democratic friend in Ukraine which will serve as a bulwark against further Russian expansion.
I explained that Russia does not have the economic or military resources to dominate Eastern Europe and its ambitions appear to be limited to establishing a sphere of influence that includes “protection” for some adjacent areas that are traditionally Russian and inhabited by ethnic Russians. Crimea is, unfortunately, one such region that was actually directly governed by Moscow between 1783 and 1954 and it is also militarily vitally important to Moscow as it is the home of the Black Sea Fleet. I did not point that out to excuse Russian behavior but only to suggest that Moscow does have an argument to make, particularly as the United States has been meddling in Eastern Europe, including Ukraine where it has “invested” $5 billion, since the Clinton Administration.
I argued that if resurgent Russian nationalism actually endangered the United States there would be a case to be made for constricting Moscow by creating an alliance of neighbors that would be able to help contain any expansion, but even the hawks in the U.S. Congress are neither prepared nor able to demonstrate a genuine threat. Fear of the expansionistic Soviet Union after 1945 was indeed the original motivation for creating NATO. But the reality is that Russia is only dangerous if the U.S. succeeds in backing it into a corner where it will begin to consider the kind of disruption that was the norm during the Cold War or even some kind of nuclear response or demonstration. If one is focused on U.S. interests globally Russia has actually been a responsible player, helping in the Middle East and also against international terrorism.
So there was little to agree on apart from the fact that the Ukrainians have a right to have a government they choose for themselves and also to defend themselves. And we Americans have in the Ukrainians yet another potential client state that wants our help. In return we would have yet another dependency whose concerns have to be regarded when formulating our foreign policy. One can sympathize with the plight of the Ukrainians but it is not up to Washington to fix the world or to go around promoting democracy as a potential solution to pervasive regional political instability.
Obviously a discussion based on what are essentially conflicting interests will ultimately go nowhere and so it did in this case, but it did raise the issue of why Washington’s relationship with Moscow is so troubled, particularly as it need not be so. Regarding Ukraine and associated issues, Washington’s approach has been stick-and-carrot with the emphasis on the stick through the imposition of painful sanctions and meaningless though demeaning travel bans. I would think that reversing that formulation to emphasize rewards would actually work better as today’s Russia is actually a relatively new nation in terms of its institutions and suffers from insecurity about its place in the world and the respect that it believes it is entitled to receive.
Russia recently celebrated the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two in Europe. The celebration was boycotted by the United States and by many Western European nations in protest over Russian interference in Ukraine. I don’t know to what extent Obama has any knowledge of recent history, but the Russians were the ones who were most instrumental in the defeat of Nazi Germany, losing 27 million citizens in the process. It would have been respectful for President Obama or Secretary of State John Kerry to travel to Moscow for the commemoration and it would likely have produced a positive result both for Ukraine and also to mitigate the concern that a new Cold War might be developing. But Obama chose to stay home as punishment for Putin, which I think was a bad choice suggesting that he is being strongly influenced by Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the other neocons who seem to have retained considerable power in his administration.
And I also would note a couple of other bad choices made during the past several weeks. The Trans-Pacific multilateral trade agreement that is currently working its way through Congress and is being aggressively promoted by the White House might be great for business though it may or may not be good for the American worker, which, based on previous agreements, is a reasonable concern. But what really disturbs me is the Obama explanation of why the pact is important. Obama told a crowd gathered outside the Nike footwear company in Oregon that the deal is necessary because “if we don’t write the rules, China will…”
Fear of the Yellow Peril might indeed be legitimate but it would be difficult to make the case that an internally troubled China is seeking to dominate the Pacific. If it attempts to do so, it would face strong resistance from the Japanese, Vietnamese, Filipinos and Koreans among others. But what is bothersome to me and probably also to many in the Asian audience is that Obama takes as a given that he will be able to “write the rules.” This is American hubris writ large and I am certain that many who are thereby designated to follow Washington’s lead are as offended by it as I am. Bad move Barack.
And finally there is Iran as an alleged state sponsor of terrorism. President Obama claims that he is working hard to achieve a peaceful settlement of the alleged threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program. But if that is so why does he throw obstacles irrelevant to an agreement out to make the Iranian government more uncomfortable and therefore unwilling or unable to compromise? In an interview with Arabic newspaper Asharq al-Awsat Obama called Tehran a terrorism supporter, stating that “it [Iran] props up the Assad regime in Syria. It supports Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. It aids the Houthi rebels in Yemen so countries in the region are rights to be deeply concerned…” I understand that the interview was designed to reassure America’s friends in the Gulf that the United States shares their concerns and will continue to support them but the timing would appear to be particularly unfortunate.
The handling of Russia, China and Iran all exemplify the essential dysfunction in American foreign policy. The United States should have a mutually respectful relationship with Russia, ought to accept that China is an adversary but not necessarily an enemy unless we make it so and it should also finally realize that an agreement with Iran is within its grasp as long as Washington does not overreach. It is not clear that any of that is well understood and one has to wonder precisely what kind of advice Obama is receiving when fails to understand the importance of Russia, insists on “writing the rules” for Asia, and persists in throwing around the terrorist label. If the past fifteen years have taught us anything it is that the “Washington as the international arbiter model” is not working. Obama should wake up to that reality before Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush arrives on the scene to make everything worse.