Every week, a selection of leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
There are at least two different visions for Ukraine (and Russia) in the U.S. administration, as the recent visits to the countries by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland testify.
In his press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on May 12, Kerry expressed an opinion about the future of Donetsk airport in eastern Ukraine that contrasts with what Nuland said less than a week later. Nuland’s stance on the Ukraine crisis was infamously revealed by a leaked phone call in which she said “F*ck the EU.” At the same time, Kerry is trying to save what is salvable in the relationship with Russia, a much-needed policy given that most of today’s world issues cannot be approached without Russia on board.
The Kerry-Nuland differences go well beyond a “good cop, bad cop” strategy and rather suggest a sharp divergence of views that can only weaken U.S. influence in the region and beyond.
The question is where the White House stands. If U.S. President Barack Obama sides with his secretary of state, the obvious consequence would be to move Nuland, a career diplomat, to another job. If he does not, the result would be to undermine Kerry at a time when he cannot be undermined—or else the United States will lose any leverage it has in the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program. Either way, there will be casualties; but better a small casualty than wobbly policies.
Since U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Sochi on May 12, there has been barely a signal of change in U.S. policy toward Ukraine or Russia. President Barack Obama has never stated any intention to fully isolate Russia for its behavior over Ukraine, as long as Moscow does not launch a full-scale war on Ukrainian territory. Instead, the West has demonstrated its willingness to maintain channels of communication with Russia. The United States seems to be sticking to that line, while probably also testing the waters in Moscow and reasserting its presence in Europe’s security crisis diplomacy.
Washington’s true stance, however, will become clearer as the United States, along with its European partners, responds to the implementation of the Minsk II agreement, which seeks to end the fighting in eastern Ukraine. If the United States offers the Kremlin too many concessions before Russia allows Ukraine to regain control over its border, pulls out Russian mercenaries and equipment, and stops meddling in Ukraine’s internal affairs, then this will show that the United States has sacrificed Ukraine’s interests to normalization with Russia. Otherwise, there is probably no need for Ukraine to worry about the U.S. position now.
Given the fear and uncertainty over Russia in its near abroad, this behind-closed-doors diplomacy has fueled speculations that spark frustration and distrust for Western diplomacy. That plays into Russia’s hands. Ukrainians need clear signals of long-term support on their path to development and democracy, especially as they pave that road with their lives, not with murky assumptions and misinterpretations.
U.S. condemnation of Russian behavior remains clear and unequivocal. But the United States did not risk upsetting the existing East-West balance in the 1956 Hungarian Uprising or the 1968 Prague Spring, and it did not stop former East German leader Walter Ulbricht from building the Berlin Wall.
The same holds true today. Even worse, U.S. readiness to intervene in Europe has declined dramatically since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Europe’s substitution of an EU peace policy for a common transatlantic security strategy has convinced many that, in the view of the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, Europe is no longer relevant to the United States.
Many U.S. think tankers now seem almost ashamed of Western successes in Eastern European democracy building. They seem ready to buy Russian diplomatic support by compensating Moscow for the threatening growth of civil society on its Western borders.
European Parliament President Martin Schulz taunted the United States by claiming that the Ukraine crisis had become a European moment—just as Luxembourg’s former foreign minister Jacques Poos did over twenty years ago when the conflict in the Western Balkans began.
Unfortunately, this time, Kerry agrees. Soon, Europeans will be shocked to learn that their wishes have been fulfilled. Germany is hoping against hope that the fiction of the Minsk II agreement, which aims to end the war in eastern Ukraine, will hold. When it doesn’t, Europe will find that the United States doesn’t really care. Kerry might instead be in Tehran.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent meetings with the Russian leadership in Sochi cannot be considered a success. These meetings sent unproductive messages to Moscow, caused incomprehension in Europe, and weakened a common Western stance toward Russia.
The Western interest in Ukraine is for the country to restore its territorial integrity, reform, democratize, and be free to make its own decisions. Moscow, however, still hopes to gain leverage over Kiev’s decisionmaking that would enable Russia to manipulate its neighbor’s geopolitical choices.
Russia sees the February 2015 Minsk II agreement as a useful tool in this context. The Kremlin hopes that Ukraine’s failure to reform and the West’s emerging Ukraine fatigue—combined with other pressing issues such as Iran—will make Western leaders accept Moscow’s interpretation of the accord. Many in Moscow understood Kerry’s messages in Sochi as a confirmation that this hope would be met. That surely caused dismay in some European capitals, such as Berlin, which has been diligent and consistent in delivering tough messages to Moscow.
If Washington has not gone soft, as U.S. diplomats rushed to confirm, then the danger is that Moscow—notoriously bad at reading Western minds—will once again feel cheated and will respond with increased aggression.
The West must be aware that its problems with Russia are here to stay for years. Quick fixes are not available; the West needs a proper multidimensional strategy to manage the challenges as well as messaging that is consistent with that strategy.
This truth is slowly dawning on Europe. More of that illumination is needed in Washington, where much of the debate seems to lack depth, causing concern about the possibility of sudden U-turns inspired by other priorities.
It certainly looks that way. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on May 12 conveyed weakness, not strength. Russia has not stopped its proxy war in Ukraine and has not paid any significant price in economic or diplomatic terms.
However, the real culprit is the EU: the crisis in Ukraine is first and foremost one of European security, and the United States—with a lot of other problems on its plate—can quite reasonably expect the EU to deal with it. As the EU’s May 21–22 Eastern Partnership summit in Riga showed all too clearly, that expectation is unfounded.
Being wobbly doesn’t necessarily mean being inefficient. The two may appear to be the same if only the short-term effects of U.S. diplomatic and economic actions are taken into account. But I strongly believe that the financial sanctions imposed on Russia after its March 2014 annexation of Crimea are hurting President Vladimir Putin and his closest friends in business circles more than it seems.
At the same time, the U.S. administration doesn’t have many tools available. Unlike during the Cold War, the economies of today’s world are deeply interconnected. Russian money is constantly flowing through the City of London, Russian companies are investing heavily on all continents, and Western ex-politicians have become advisers to Russian oligarchs. Imposing sanctions on the Soviet Union in the 1980s was easy and relatively harmless for the international community. Waging an all-out economic war against Putin’s Russia right now would be not only counterproductive but perhaps even suicidal.
Nevertheless, there is one lesson the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama should draw from the Cold War era: deterrence worked thirty years ago, and it would in all likelihood work now. Putin is aware that NATO’s military capabilities are far superior to Russia’s. But he is also aware that the West is reluctant to make use of its own force. Permanent bases in Poland, boots on the ground in Lithuania, and massive back-to-back exercises in Eastern Europe—this is what the United States and NATO need to avoid looking wobbly.
The United States isn’t necessarily wobbly over Ukraine, but it is divided, even in the halls of the State Department.
At the strategic level, Washington’s views are split on the degree to which Russian aggression in Ukraine poses a serious challenge to U.S. national security. Some argue that Russia’s flagrant violation of international norms and of Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty merits a heavy response from the West. Others argue that while Russia’s actions in Ukraine are worrisome, they simply aren’t on a par with the threats stemming from the Middle East.
At the tactical level, one finds sizable divides on the question of lethal assistance, with some arguing that the only way to stop Russian President Vladimir Putin is by putting defensive weapons in the hands of the Ukrainians. Others, though, warn against escalating the conflict in ways that would potentially end all chances for the Minsk II ceasefire agreement to succeed.
These Russia-related debates, however, pale in comparison to those on the self-styled Islamic State. U.S. foreign policy elites are consumed by a steady stream of rather heated exchanges on how best to address the militant group, who is to blame for its rise, and which presidential candidate would be best suited to cope with this challenge.
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