The goalposts moved while you weren’t looking. At the end of February, President Obama warned “there will be costs” for Russia if it invaded any part of Ukraine. Yet while in Europe, Obama has made it clear that there will only be meaningful costs for Russia if it launches a second invasion, targeting some other part of Ukraine. Once again, a red line has vanished.
Tough talk covering a retreat
In his major address in Brussels, Obama waxed eloquent about the unity of the United States and Europe in the face of Russian aggression. nbsp;”Together, we have isolated Russia politically, suspending it from the G8 nations and downgrading our bilateral ties,” he said, ”Together, we are imposing costs through sanctions that have left a mark on Russia and those accountable for its actions.”
If one is charitable, one might say the current US and EU sanctions have “left a mark.” In Washington, Ukraine’s staunchest defenders on both sides of the aisle expected the President to go to Brussels and bring back a commitment from the Europeans to impose the kind of sanctions that could actually influence Vladimir Putin’s strategic thinking. Instead, all Obama would say is that “if the Russian leadership stays on its current course, together we will ensure that this isolation deepens.”
Hardly a ringing call to restore the sovereignty and unity of Ukraine. What does it mean “if” Russia stays on its current course? The annexation of Crimea is a fact on the ground. The only logical meaning of “if”, is “if” Russia commits a second action as provocative as invading Crimea, then Obama and the EU will get serious.
Europe’s soft line clarifies Obama’s evasion
The President’s joint press conference with the presidents of the European Council and European Commission helped to clarify that Europe has no intention of imposing significant costs for the theft of Crimea. Council President Von Rompuy left no doubts that only further misbehavior will provoke a Western response. “If further steps were taken by Russia to destabilize the situation in Ukraine, we will take economic sanctions,” he said. Commission President Barroso noted, “unacceptable actions will bear very serious consequences. And so far, this has been a message that has been passed clearly to the Russian leadership.” This only makes sense with regard to unacceptable actions in the future, since Russia has laughed at the consequences resulting from its unacceptable annexation of Crimea.
The American president tried to sound tougher than his EU counterparts, but didn’t exactly pull it off. “We’re united in our determination to isolate Russia and impose costs for Russia’s actions,” he began, echoing his original pledge to impose costs if Russia violated Ukrainian sovereignty. But then he pushed off all meaningful action to the future, like Rompuy and Barroso. “If [emphasis added] Russia stays on its current course, the consequences for the Russian economy will continue to grow. Of course, all this comes atop the measures and sanctions that the United States and others around the world are imposing on Russia. And taken together, these are the most significant sanctions Russia has faced since the end of the Cold War.” The bar has been lowered.
Repetition in Rome
The obfuscation continued at a joint press conference with the Italian minister. ”The sanctions that the United States and the European Union have imposed will continue to grow if Russia doesn’t change course,” Obama remarked, “But as I said yesterday in Brussels, we are continually hopeful that Russia walks through the door of diplomacy and works with all of us to try to resolve this issue in a peaceful way.
The vague demand for Russia to change is course is perplexing. Its course on Crimea is complete. It will not walk through the door of diplomacy unless real sanctions give it a decisive push. The only question is whether Russia will seize other parts of Ukraine or launch a covert campaign to destabilize the government in Kiev.
The good news about Ukraine is that the West has stepped up to provide the economic support necessary to salvage the Ukrainian economy. Yesterday, the IMF announced an $18 billion loan package, with another $9 billion in the works. With the IMF agreement in place, Europe should also be able to move ahead with its $15 billion aid package. Most importantly, the new government in Kiev seems prepared to take the painful measures necessary to reform its economy so that the coming infusion of cash isn’t wasted.
While it’s discouraging that President Obama seems no more serious about imposing costs on Russia than he was about enforcing his red line in Syria, at least there is a determination on both sides of the Atlantic to strengthen the new government in Kiev and help it through the turmoil of consolidating a democratic order.
Does Ukraine have a future in the EU and NATO?
If Ukraine emerges from the current crisis with a stable economy and democratic government, it will presumably look for real guarantees against future aggression, which would mean joining the EU, NATO or both. The EU has already signed an association agreement with Ukraine, although its Western and Southern European members may be too timid to go any further, even if Ukraine becomes fully qualified.
Meanwhile, President Obama poured cold water on any prospect of joining NATO. While pushing Kiev to join NATO right now might be provocative, a President more concerned about Ukraine’s future might have done more than despondently observe, “part of the reason that the Ukraine has not formally applied for NATO membership is because of its complex relationship with Russia. I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon, obviously.”
A wiser comment would’ve been that NATO’s mission is to defend the free states of Europe from all external threats. While Ukraine has not yet decided on its course, NATO will not turn away a free European government whose security is threatened by a neighbor which has no respect for peace or freedom.