Ukraine's drama, Obama's weakness

Reuters

People pass by a barricade erected by Pro-European integration protestors in central Kiev, December 13, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • Statesmen are responsible for seeing beyond today's issues to protect larger U.S. interests well into the future

    Tweet This

  • @AmbJohnBolton Politics is often a blood sport in formerly totalitarian countries, and Ukraine is no exception

    Tweet This

  • @AmbJohnBolton The real issue for Ukraine (and the United States) is security

    Tweet This

Ukraine's civil conflict strikes many Americans as a distant and unimportant dispute, one hardly connected to their daily lives. Such a lack of interest in international affairs is understandable, perhaps, because of the focus on economic recovery since 2008, but it's badly misplaced given the stakes involved, not just in eastern and central Europe but around the world.

More alarming, and far less justifiable, as a cause for such inattention is the failure of America's national political leadership. President Obama's inattention to national security distinguishes him from his predecessors, Republican and Democrat alike, since Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Unlike them, his first thought every morning seems to be not the international threats facing the United States and its allies; rather, as he said in the 2008 campaign, his aim is to "fundamentally transform" America. Only when international affairs cannot be avoided or where potential domestic political gains are manifest (such as the killing of Osama bin Laden) does Obama emerge from his domestic policy bubble.

Republicans also often ignore Obama's indifference to national security. Perhaps they are uncomfortable with the issues, or perhaps they also see no political upside in focusing on international threats to America and our friends. Nor do the media help, giving, for example, limited coverage to a potentially stunning shift in Asia's balance of power — namely, China's aggressive bid to extend its control over contested airspace.

But none of these excuses is acceptable. Statesmen are responsible for seeing beyond today's issues to protect larger U.S. interests well into the future. And if America lacks such leaders, we face no higher priority than finding new ones, and quickly.

Ukraine's turmoil shows why. When the Soviet Union dissolved at the end of December 1991 and its constituent republics, some unwillingly, split off, the West had an enormous opportunity to bring these newly independent states into its orbit. The path was clear, as the central and eastern European states freed from the Warsaw Pact's chains demonstrated by immediately seeking NATO membership.

Russia understood the stakes from the outset, but the West did not. By 2005, Russian President Vladimir Putin was saying unambiguously that the Soviet Union's collapse was "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century. His objective has consistently been reestablishing Moscow's hegemony in the former Soviet Union's space. While reannexation may not be his goal, Putin clearly wants to foreclose influence by outsiders.

The Baltic republics (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), which had never accepted being incorporated into the Soviet Union, quickly transitioned to the West. For others in Central Asia and the Caucasus, the path was inevitably harder because of their historical circumstances and ongoing conflicts among themselves, although some, like Georgia, nonetheless tried.

But the great prize was Ukraine, lying on the northern European plain, sandwiched between Russia and NATO. Democracy did not come easily to Ukraine because of decades of communist rule, and because of Russia's repeated interference on behalf of its favored political leaders. Politics is often a blood sport in formerly totalitarian countries, and Ukraine is no exception. Former President Viktor Yushchenko, for example, was poisoned, and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the opposition leader, has been jailed on what many believe are trumped-up corruption charges.

Today's conflict erupted after incumbent President Viktor Yanukovich declined to enter a long-expected economic deal with the European Union, either beguiled or coerced by Putin's threats of economic reprisal by Russia. Given the EU's ongoing difficulties, Kiev might well want to avoid trading one set of problems for another, but the real issue is not whether the EU or Russia should be its preferred economic partner.

The real issue for Ukraine (and the United States) is security. What the Baltic republics and the former Warsaw Pact members really wanted, after shedding the Soviet Union's chains, was to join NATO, to prevent being reshackled. The EU certainly seems desirable — one more Western club to join — but it is decidedly secondary compared with avoiding being chained again by Moscow.

Thus the West collectively made a terrible mistake at the NATO summit in April 2008 by not placing Ukraine (and Georgia) on a clear path to NATO membership. Had we done so, the question of EU economic relations would doubtless have been more easily resolved. Ambiguity over Ukraine, leaving it in a no man's land between Russia and NATO, obviously didn't lead to Ukrainian stability, domestically or internationally. And the same vital question for Kiev's citizens abides: Is their future with the West or Moscow?

It is hard to imagine that Obama gives even a passing thought to Ukraine's drama, or many Republicans either, for that matter. But there should be no mistaking that tectonic plates are being realigned in Europe, for better or worse. America's passivity and indifference will not make for a better outcome.

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author

 

John R.
Bolton
  • John R. Bolton, a diplomat and a lawyer, has spent many years in public service. From August 2005 to December 2006, he served as the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. From 2001 to 2005, he was under secretary of state for arms control and international security. At AEI, Ambassador Bolton's area of research is U.S. foreign and national security policy.

    Like John Bolton on Facebook


     


    Follow John Bolton on Twitter.


  • Phone: 202.862.5892
    Email: christine.samuelian@aei.org
  • Assistant Info

    Name: Christine Samuelian
    Phone: 202.862.5892
    Email: christine.samuelian@aei.org

What's new on AEI

image The Census Bureau and Obamacare: Dumb decision? Yes. Conspiracy? No.
image A 'three-state solution' for Middle East peace
image Give the CBO long-range tools
image The coming collapse of India's communists
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 21
    MON
  • 22
    TUE
  • 23
    WED
  • 24
    THU
  • 25
    FRI
Wednesday, April 23, 2014 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Graduation day: How dads’ involvement impacts higher education success

Join a diverse group of panelists — including sociologists, education experts, and students — for a discussion of how public policy and culture can help families lay a firmer foundation for their children’s educational success, and of how the effects of paternal involvement vary by socioeconomic background.

Thursday, April 24, 2014 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Getting it right: A better strategy to defeat al Qaeda

This event will coincide with the release of a new report by AEI’s Mary Habeck, which analyzes why current national security policy is failing to stop the advancement of al Qaeda and its affiliates and what the US can do to develop a successful strategy to defeat this enemy.

Friday, April 25, 2014 | 9:15 a.m. – 1:15 p.m.
Obamacare’s rocky start and uncertain future

During this event, experts with many different views on the ACA will offer their predictions for the future.   

No events scheduled today.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.