The Russian Bear Roars

There’s an old Jewish saying: “A good time to keep your mouth shut is when you’re in deep trouble.”  President Barack Obama and his foreign policy advisers would have profited if they had been aware of this.  Instead, the president went ahead with a 90-minute phone conversation on March 1, 2014 with President Vladimir Putin of Russia about the situation in Ukraine.  Already, events had rapidly escalated with the Russian invasion of Crimea, supposedly because the regional Crimean government had asked for Russian military assistance to restore order in the area.

Obama expressed “his deep concern” over Russian actions, which he held were a violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity and thus a breach of international law.  He had in an earlier press conference similarly expressed that clear concern.  He also said there will be a price to be paid for Russian military intervention in Ukraine.  It was not clear what that “cost” would be, nor who would be responsible for it.  The U.S., said the president, will stand by the international community in affirming that there will be costs for the intervention.

That intervention occurred after the Russian parliament, the Federation Council of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, approved Putin’s request to use Russian Armed Forces on the “territory of Ukraine to the normalization of the political situation” in the country.  In a specious statement, reminiscent of that by Adolf Hitler in invading Czechoslovakia in 1939, Putin explained his action as a result of the “provocations, and crimes by ultranationalist elements, essentially supported by the current authorities in Kiev.”  Russia, he proclaimed, had the right to protect its interests and the Russian-speaking population of eastern Ukraine (Crimea).

Certainly there are complex issues of international law involved, as well as the real meaningful political ones.  Ukraine is not a member of NATO, but some agreements have been made to help protect its sovereignty.  Two in particular are relevant to the current situation.

The Budapest Memorandum of December 1994, signed by the U.S., Britain, and Russia, after Ukraine signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear state, affirmed that the three countries would refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine.  The Distinctive Partnership Charter of 1997 is an agreement between Ukraine and NATO committing the NATO Allies to continue to support Ukrainian sovereignty and independence, and the principle of inviolability of frontiers.

The Obama administration is aware of these agreements but has not implemented them.  Like Obama himself, other members of the U.S. administration, including Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, have engaged in conversations with their Russian or Ukrainian counterparts to no particular end.  These conversations by U.S. and European officials have led not to any resolution, but rather to displays of weakness and even absurdity.

For example, the U.S. media and cable networks, which have been pouring out information on the Ukraine and Russian intervention there, will not appreciate the remarks of Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.  She concluded that sending international observers from the U.N. or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe was the best way to get the facts, monitor conduct, and prevent any abuses.  The hapless Catherine Ashton, foreign representative of the European Union, called on the Russian Federation “not to dispatch troops but to promote its views through peaceful means.”  She also advised the Ukrainian government not to break trading and cultural links with Russia.

But above all, it is the inaction of  the Obama administration that is most disconcerting.  This stems both from the view of Obama that rhetoric can be a substitute for action and from a misperception of the U.S. role in international affairs.  This was already clear from his press conference on October 21, 2011.  At that time, he held that “the tide of war is receding,” and that the U.S. was moving forward from a position of strength.  It is not clear where the forward motion has gone, nor that strength has been exerted in response to the increasing power of Putin.

After thirteen years in office, that power of Putin is now evident, externally as well as internally, in Russia.  After 16 years as a member of the KGB, including five years, 1985-1990, as a lieutenant colonel in East Germany, Putin was accustomed to the use of power.  Internally, he has controlled public opinion and political life.  With the law in September 2011 having changed the presidential term from 4 to 6 years, one can expect Putin, elected in 2012 after being president and then prime minister since 2000, to serve two six-year terms and to be in office until 2024.  He is accompanied by a strong group of advisers, many coming from those he employed at the KGB.

On the world stage, Putin has moved from being a junior partner with the U.S. in 2000 to one of near equality, in spite of the differences in economic resources, military strength, and population of the two countries.  Speaking fluent German and almost fluent English, Putin hosted the talks devoted to Syria at the G-20 summit at St. Petersburg in September 2013.  His arrogance was shown when he kept Kerry waiting for three hours in the Kremlin, and when he took his Labrador dog to his first meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was bitten by a dog when she was a child.  His policies, divergent from those of Obama, have been displayed in a variety of issues -- Libya, Syria, Iran, Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, and on anti-missile defense.

Putin has made no secret that his objective, while not to restore the Soviet Union, is to create a kind of Euro-Asian Union that can counter both the EU and NATO.  The problem now is whether he can act unilaterally in areas such as the Crimea, which he, or some of his supporters, consider Russian.  In view of Western inaction, it is likely that he now believes that NATO is a paper tiger, and that Obama is not to be taken seriously.

The specific problem of Crimea, ceded to Ukraine in 1954 by Nikita Khrushchev, then leader of the Soviet Union, for reasons that are still not absolutely clear, is complex because of the historic ties to Russia and the divided population, both ethnic Russians and 5,000 Tatars (Turkic Muslims, descendants of those who were deported by Stalin to Central Asia in 1944).

But what is needed for both the Crimea and the country of Ukraine is a strong U.S. response.  Obama will clearly never respond with military force, and NATO is unlikely to do so either.  There remain a number of options: sanctions against Russia until its troops are withdrawn, strong resolutions introduced at the U.N. condemning its actions, Western political support for any democratic leadership that emerges in Kiev, encouraging Ukraine to join the EU, and refusal by democratic countries to attend the group of 8 meeting in June 2014 in Sochi.

These are not dramatic actions, but they would allow Putin to realize that the West is not supine.  It is time for the Obama administration to take the initiative and outline a clear policy in relations with the Russia of Putin, as well as in foreign affairs generally.  Putin is aware of the old Russian proverb: “In a world of sheep, the wolf is king.”

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.