Now would be a fine time for President Obama to show he is not a doormat. For five years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has run rings around the Obama administration. Russia has insinuated itself into the Middle East, bullied neighbors and repressed its own people. Yesterday, Russian thugs attacked members of Pussy Riot in Sochi. Moreover, in Ukraine, back from a visit to Sochi, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych unleashed a torrent of violence, killing more than two dozen and injuring hundreds of protesters.
Obama offered no condemnation of Russia for provoking the riots last year when Putin bullied Ukraine into backing out of talks with the European Union or now when Putin is obviously strong-arming the Ukrainian president to crack down on peaceful protesters and brutalizing his own people in full view of the West.
Presumably, the Obama administration’s elevated rhetoric had some impact; a truce was declared on Wednesday. But violence continued into Thursday; the Ukrainian government may well resume its thuggishness and/or block democratic reforms. Unfortunately, Obama’s warning of “consequences” for continued violence directed to Putin’s lackey in Kiev sounds hollow given Obama’s track record of empty threats and erasable red lines. Putin plainly doesn’t take him seriously at this point.
Chess master and democracy advocate Garry Kasparov tweeted, “Murderous repression in Ukraine was foretold by confusion and moral cowardice of EU/US on Syria and elsewhere versus Putin’s pressure.” And now, as Kasparov puts it, “Putin’s Kremlin & media have encouraged civil war in Ukraine, hoping for bloody crackdown to end democracy & to send message to Russians.” And Yanukovych dutifully delivered.
In the case of Ukraine, the State Department has stepped up to the plate. High-ranking U.S. officials met with and openly supported protesters agitating against Yanukovych’s withdrawal from the E.U. trade pact. Foggy Bottom has intensified its public condemnation of the violence. In addition to tough words, a senior State Department official confirmed in a media call Wednesday that 20 individuals involved in the crackdown “all the way up the chain of command” had their visas revoked. There are more weapons in the “toolkit,” as the official put it, but broader sanctions are a dicey proposition when we mean to pressure the government, not harm the Ukrainian people.
When asked about Russia’s claimed “sphere of interest,” the senior official declared such a concept to be a “wildly outmoded notion” and noted that for 22 years and four presidents, we have supported the independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine. It’s a sorry state of affairs when the State Department sounds tougher than the president.
Sadly, there is only so much diplomats can do when the president sends a stream of signals showing fecklessness and weakness to an international adversary. The president on every level has failed to check Russian ambition and meddling. In the grossly counterproductive reset, Obama undercut allies in Eastern Europe by pulling out promised missile defense installations. Later he pleaded with Russia to help usher out Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; Russia rebuffed us repeatedly at the United Nations. Then, last year, he invited Russia to help “solve” the problem of Syria’s weapons of mass destruction. Russia now instigates violence in Europe, supports the butcher of Damascus and provides an economic lifeline to Iran.
The Senate is now pushing for further sanctions against Ukraine. But the root of the problem is Russia and the United States’ lack of effectiveness in deterring aggression. There is apparently never a price to be paid for conduct entirely at odds with international law. Our allies in Europe and around the world see this; they must shudder at the prospect they might have to rely on an Obama “red line” when Putin takes aim at them. Meanwhile, Putin basks in the glory of the Sochi Games. At least there is Finland.