Obama’s hesitation in Ukraine endangers Eastern Europe

With the United States understandably focused on Islamist threats to the civilized world, Russia’s Vladimir Putin continues to whittle away at the post-Cold War architecture of global relations by ignoring his commitment to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and boosting support for Russian-backed rebels.

Putin’s efforts to undermine Ukraine, coming on top of his annexation of Crimea – which the world apparently has now accepted as fact – sends a dangerous signal not only to him but to other hungry strongmen about whether the U.S.-led free world will maintain order or let the norms of global relations wither away.

At the moment, President Obama and European leaders are giving Putin no reason to shift course as they display little enthusiasm for more sanctions against Russia and, in fact, search for reasons to lift the ones in place.

That sends precisely the wrong message to a Russian autocrat who dreams of resurrecting as much of the Soviet empire as the world will allow; who continues to violate his own commitment to stop stirring up trouble in Ukraine; who is eyeing the Baltic States of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania for possible further expansion; who is undercutting U.S. strategic goals in Iran, Syria and elsewhere; and who maintains support at home by concocting U.S. threats to topple his regime.

Meanwhile, Putin’s Russia is increasingly vulnerable to economic pressure, with the sharp drop in global oil prices wreaking havoc with its oil-dependent economy by slowing growth, reducing government revenues, sending its currency plunging, boosting inflation and making bank failures more likely.

At this point, tighter sanctions on Russia could further damage an economy that’s tumbling into a crisis, perhaps giving Putin pause to rethink his strategy if further economic disarray threatens his regime.

Military aid to Ukraine would buttress Kiev’s effort to retain its territorial integrity by fighting the Russian-backed rebels who control parts of eastern Ukraine and also signal that Washington cares about the outcome.

After its unanimous passage by both the House and Senate, Obama recently signed the Ukraine Freedom Support Act into law, giving him the power to impose additional sanctions targeted at Russia’s defense, energy and banking industries, and to provide $350 million in arms and military equipment to Ukraine.

But, in his signing statement, Obama announced that he won’t impose those sanctions any time soon but, instead, will “continue to work closely with allies and partners in Europe and internationally to respond to developments in Ukraine.” He didn’t address the issue of military aid, but he’s shown no enthusiasm for it in the past, opting for non-lethal humanitarian aid that, not surprisingly, hasn’t impressed Putin.

In fact, Obama is doubling-down on his long-running efforts to “reset” U.S.-Russian relations that had deteriorated in the later years of President Bush’s tenure. Though reset efforts have clearly failed, and though Putin openly treats him with contempt, Obama continues to seek opportunities designed more to reason with the Russian autocrat than pressure him.

At Obama’s behest, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about ignoring Russia’s annexing of Crimea for the moment and partially lifting current U.S. sanctions against Russia – if, in return, Russia ends its military support for Ukrainian separatists and adheres to September’s Minsk agreement that calls for an end of military operations on all sides and negotiations to settle the conflict, according to Bloomberg View columnist Josh Rogin.

More broadly in his frequent chats with Lavrov, Kerry continues to seek other opportunities for U.S.-Russian cooperation in places ranging from Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, Syria and Yemen.

U.S. offers to ease sanctions will reward Putin for his continued meddling in Ukraine while strengthening him at home. Only a combination of tighter sanctions and military aid could push him off his current path.

Lawrence J. Haas, a former communications director for Vice President Al Gore, is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington, D.C.


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