eyes on the U.S.

Ukraine, Don't Blame American Weakness

The crisis in Crimea says more about Russian ambitions and European foot-dragging than it does about indecisiveness in Washington.

Kiev marches on
Kiev marches on
Ansgar Graw

WASHINGTON – It's prime time in America, and the cable television channel AMC is showing Sylvester Stallone’s nearly 30-year-old film Rocky IV. In this installment of the boxing saga, the American hero Rocky Balboa gets roughed up pretty bad in the first round by Soviet muscle machine Drago.

If you switch to Fox News, you’re reminded that former presidential candidate Mitt Romney warned, in 2012, that Russia remained "the USA’s number one geopolitical enemy." Meanwhile, experts on CNN discuss whether Russia’s grab of Crimea from Ukraine was provoked by the weakness of American President Barack Obama, who laughed at what he called Romney’s “Cold War rhetoric.”

Reset, rebuild

The idea about American weakness deserves some follow-up, but focusing on the White House is far too simple. Yes, Obama’s “reset” policy to mark a new start in relations with Russia was naive. The President didn’t understand Russia’s classical geopolitical thinking. Neither the plan to link former Warsaw Pact countries into an American missile shield nor the dialogue about citizens’ rights were compatible with Vladimir Putin’s goal to rebuild a tightly-led super power after the traumatic demise of the USSR.

Last year Obama came across as a ditherer on the foreign policy front when his threats to unilaterally punish Syria for using poison gas gave way to an unexpected request to Congress – and finally with Putin’s help, turned the whole thing over to the negotiating table.

And yet, the mobilization of Russian units, with the apparent target of ensuring Russian dominance at least in Crimea, is hardly a result of Obama’s waffling. Otherwise how would you explain Putin’s military intervention not dissimilar in some respects to the Crimea operation in Georgian provinces Abkhasia and South Ossetia in 2008? During the Caucasus war Obama wasn’t president George W. Bush was, and his foreign policy seldom came under criticism for lacking decisiveness.

The weakness of the US President is not, however, what is driving Russia to create precedents in Crimea. It is instead the "fixed star" in Moscow’s policy itself – the consolidation of its own territory and securing a peripheral cordon sanitaire to keep real or suspected enemies at a distance particularly after the experience of NATO eastward expansion in the 1990s.

This makes it even more imperative that the US not show weakness in the way it handles this crisis. Beyond the President, whether the US reacts weakly will also depend on the ongoing trench warfare between Republicans and Democrats. The political standoff in Washington concerns health reform as well as negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program.

With regard to Ukrainian politics it wasn’t Obama who wavered. The US imposed sanctions on members of the despotic and now-departed pro-Russian regime in Kiev, while the Europeans were studiously ignoring the storm clouds gathering. That’s why it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Victoria Nuland, an assistant secretary of state, in a supposedly confidential phone conversation, said: "F#*k the EU."

Think twice

In view of the apparent occupation by Russian military units of Ukrainian military installations in Crimea, Washington is once again planning sanctions, this time against the Kremlin. And again, the Europeans don’t want to hear it. They would however be far more directly hit by Russian reprisals than the Americans – mainly Germany that in its push away from nuclear energy has actually again become more reliant, as it had traditionally been, on Russian gas.

The European Union volume of trade with Russia is 11 times that of the US with Russia. That’s why, in Washington, the view is that without the Europeans (headed by Germany) effective sanctions against Moscow are not feasible.

Still, Obama should think twice about the "political, diplomatic and economic isolation of Russia," which so far he’s cautiously floated via Secretary of State John Kerry. In too many crisis situations, from Syria to Iran, Washington depends on a certain amount of cooperation from the Russians. Which is why a military reaction is not being considered anywhere, neither by Europe, NATO, nor in the US.

All signs point to Moscow seizing Crimea, whether by annexing it to Russia (to which it belonged until 1954) or in a camouflaged maneuver – “autonomy” recognized by the Kremlin. Over and above that, there is the threat of a Ukraine divided into a Western, pro-European part and an Eastern, pro-Russian part although this could possibly be avoided if the West joins together to secure this huge bankrupt country at the center of Europe.

To do that the EU is going to have to dig deep into its pockets. And because Russia is no longer going to deliver petrol and gas at less than world market prices to Ukraine, the US could make that up with its enormous new wealth of its fracking-driven supply of gas. If the US were also to offer this supply to the Europeans, this would be a considerable embarrassment to Putin.

The Rocky movie, by the way, ends with a hard-won victory by Rocky Balboa over the Russian Drago. The Crimea crisis, for now, shows no signs of a Hollywood ending.

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