The president’s spinelessness is nowhere more apparent than in the White House briefing room. Consider yesterday’s back-and-forth on Ukraine with White House press secretary Jay Carney:
QUESTION: . . . . Ukraine and Russia are trading blame over who’s responsible for the shooting yesterday in eastern Ukraine. Can you just give us what the U.S. assessment is of what happened there?
MR. CARNEY: Julie, what I can tell you is that we continue to monitor events in eastern Ukraine closely. We’ve seen differing reports about what happened in Slovyansk yesterday but cannot independently confirm responsibility for these actions. Overall, we are concerned about the situation there, and we urge paramilitary groups throughout the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine to lay down their weapons and depart the buildings that they have occupied, as was called for in the accord signed in Geneva last week. We continue to call on Russia to use its influence over these groups to press them to disarm and to turn occupied buildings over to the authorities.
We commend the government of Ukraine for continuing to demonstrate restraint, and are hopeful that all parties in the Rada will shortly be able to agree on an amnesty bill to help deescalate the situation in the east. As we have said, if there is not progress within days we remain prepared, along with our European and G7 partners, to impose additional costs on Russia for its destabilizing actions.
So when it comes to that specific incident, we’re still unable independently to confirm who’s responsible for what happened there, but there’s no question that there’s been a great deal of destabilizing activity and that Russia has influence over the groups that have engaged in that activity, who have seized buildings. And we continue to call on Russia to use that influence to pressure those groups to disarm and to return the buildings to authorities.
Q You mentioned a couple of steps that you commend Ukraine for taking in order to live up to the conditions of this accord. But do you have any indication that Russia is taking the steps that it agreed to under that agreement?
MR. CARNEY: Well, first of all, they signed the agreement and they have committed themselves by signing to use their influence to stabilize the situation in Ukraine or to urge those over whom they have influence to disarm and to return buildings that they have occupied back to the authorities. And we continue to press them to do that. As we have made clear, should Russia continue to engage in destabilizing actions in Ukraine, there will be costs. There has been already. And should they escalate their destabilizing activity the costs will escalate.
So we’re in a place now with the Vice President in Kyiv and meeting with Ukrainian government officials where we are demonstrating our support for that government, for the process that they have undertaken of both reform and near-term elections, and we are continuing to call on all parties to honor the agreements they made in Geneva.
Q But at this point, do you see any sign that Russia is doing that, is honoring the agreement they made?
MR. CARNEY: What we continue to see is a situation in eastern Ukraine that remains very volatile and tense and that requires that steps be taken to stabilize it because of the potential for it to become worse and more chaotic. What we hope to see from Russia is the use of its influence on those groups that clearly respond to that influence. And we have been very clear that we firmly believe that Russia has supported the so-called separatists in eastern Ukraine that have popped up with arms to seize buildings, to stockpile weapons, to erect roadblocks. And Russia needs to abide by the agreement signed in Geneva and to take steps to help stabilize the situation.
Q Can you just be any more specific about this coming days timeline? Officials have been using that since Thursday when this agreement was signed and we’re now at Monday. How much longer do you let this play out without seeing some kind of concrete sign that it’s holding and that progress is being made?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have an end date for you. We are in a situation where we have potential new sanctions that we could impose, as we mentioned last week, and we are closely monitoring events in eastern Ukraine and monitoring compliance with the agreement signed in Geneva, and we will be evaluating compliance in coming days.
It actually gets worse later in the briefing:
Q On Ukraine, you talked earlier about Russian support for these separatists who are occupying buildings and then these towns. What about evidence that they might actually be Russian? We’ve heard that Ukraine gave the OSCE photographs — photographic evidence, they say, of actual Russians who participated in earlier events in Crimea or even Chechnya. Has the U.S. seen these pictures, validated them? What’s the response to these photos, which certainly suggest they’re not just supporting the separatists but —
MR. CARNEY: Sure. Well, there’s been broad consensus in the international community about the connection between Russia and the armed militants in Ukraine. And the photographs that you referred to that Ukraine has submitted to the OSCE I think reaffirm that connection. We have noted in the past reporting that — public reporting that indicates Russian personnel being involved in some of the activity. The actions of the militants bear striking similarities to actions taken in Crimea. And I think President Putin himself noted the other day that Russia — not just to separatists — but Russia itself participated in that. So we don’t have any doubt about the connection there, and I think that the photographs that are reported on today simply reaffirm that.
Q So Russia then becomes — if the separatists are still occupying these buildings and there’s no marked change since this truce, this accord, are the Russians — do you guys believe that the Russians are negotiating in good faith? It has to be about negotiations and not a military solution, so if the Russians are not just supporting separatists but separatists may be Russian, how are you approaching the Russians on it?
MR. CARNEY: We’ve been very direct with Russia and that was the case in Geneva. Russia understands that the international community holds one view about the actions that Russia has taken and supported in Ukraine, and that we stand prepared, together with our partners, to impose further costs on Russia if Russia does not take action to help stabilize the situation in Ukraine and to cease promoting destabilizing activity.
And in the coming days, if Russia doesn’t abide by the commitments it’s made and we don’t see steps taken to reduce the instability in the region, steps taken to use the influence that Russia has on the militants to get them to disarm and to turn back over the buildings that they’ve seized, then we’re prepared to impose further costs.
Got that? Well, neither did the frustrated White House press corps:
Q Just to follow up, you keep saying that you need to see evidence of Russia not fulfilling its promises and what was agreed to. All there has been rhetorically is just the opposite. It’s been Putin saying he doesn’t even understand why parts of Ukraine were even handed over in the first place. I mean, he’s been very provocative. If anything, it’s been reescalating not deescalating. So I guess what is the “okay, enough” as of now?
Q What are you waiting for?
Q What is the cutoff line here?
MR. CARNEY: Again, I don’t have a specific deadline for you except to say that the agreement was signed in Geneva; we are closely monitoring events in eastern Ukraine.
Q Is this days?
MR. CARNEY: The situation in coming days, you can expect that we will move forward with the imposition of further costs on Russia if Russia does not take action to comply with its commitments in Geneva.
Q What is the action that you guys are waiting for — pulling troops back?
MR. CARNEY: To see that there are actions taken that help stabilize the situation. And that would mean militias — armed militias disarming, removing themselves from buildings that they have seized and occupied.
The other side of the story, which is very important, the Ukrainian government, again, showing great restraint and professionalism, is taking steps that it can to help reduce tensions and deescalate, and that includes actions in the Rada to offer amnesty to those who have participated in these actions.
Q By saying what you just said, this means that [Russian Foreign Minister Sergei] Lavrov’s claim that somehow this was — that the Ukrainian government was behind this recent incident is —
MR. CARNEY: Again, we don’t have — as I said regarding the incident in Slovyansk, we don’t have independent confirmation of exactly what transpired there. But broadly speaking, we have seen obviously a great deal of activity seemingly coordinated — almost indisputably coordinated in eastern Ukraine when it comes to armed groups seizing buildings, occupying them, declaring themselves autonomous or independent and then absolutely in violation of Ukrainian law and constitution. . . .
Q I know you said earlier that we haven’t been able to — this administration hasn’t been able to independently verify all the facts of what happened this weekend, but do you know enough to say that there is nothing that you know so far that would justify Russian forces coming in to protect Russians in Ukraine, as some in the areas where this violence occurred have asked for?
CARNEY: That would be, as a general matter, significant and dangerous escalation of the situation. We have made clear that that kind of action, direct military intervention by Russia in Ukraine, in eastern Ukraine, would be a serious escalation of the situation there and would be met with a serious escalation of the cost to Russia. So that’s our view on that as a general matter and a specific matter.
We’re still assessing the events of the weekend, but there’s no question that the overall situation has been greatly worsened by the intervention of armed militants who have seized buildings, stockpiled weapons, blockaded roads, and done so in the name of either joining Russia or being independent and being generally pro-Russia. And our whole position has always been that Ukraine’s future has to be for Ukraine to decide and it should not be dictated to by outside states — in this case, Russia. The Ukrainian parliament and government —
Q — use it as a pretext to expand Russian action inside Ukraine?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I can’t speak to how it might be viewed in Moscow, but that is, of course, a very serious concern as a general matter, that pretext of the kind that we’ve seen, some of them fairly blatant and transparent, only serve to further destabilize the situation in Ukraine.
Q You said a moment ago when asked what has Russia done to comply with the agreement, you said, well, they signed it. Is it possible that it was signed knowing full well that the separatists or the provocateurs or whatever you want to call them inside of Ukraine would say, well, we don’t recognize the Ukrainian government in the first place, therefore, it’s not binding, therefore, signing it had no practical effect for the very government you’re hoping will help enforce it?
MR. CARNEY: I mean, people — they might have rationales for why they act, but that’s not — such action wouldn’t be lawful in Ukraine under the Ukrainian constitution, under Ukrainian law. Certainly, intervention by another state in violation of a sovereign state’s territorial integrity would be a transgression of international law, as we saw in Crimea.
So, I mean, I’m sure there are all sorts of unsustainable rationales for why these kinds of things are done and some of them are just pure propaganda. But what we’ve seen out of the Ukrainian government and Ukrainian parliament are steps that have been designed to demonstrate restraint and demonstrate a resolve to work with those regions of Ukraine that may want greater autonomy. And the Ukrainian government has committed itself to a process of constitutional reform. There are national elections scheduled for May 25th and the Rada itself has moved along in a process that could result in the passage of legislation that would allow for amnesty to participants in this activity. So I think, again, what you have seen on the Ukrainian side of this is a series of steps clearly designed to deescalate the situation, and we have not yet seen that from the other side.
Q You said a moment ago, in the coming days the cost might go up for the Russian government. Would it be reasonable to interpret that as by Friday?
MR. CARNEY: I’m not going to put a timeline on it, Major. I will simply say that we will assess Russia’s actions in keeping with the commitments it made in Geneva and then evaluate those actions, and in coming days make a decision about whether or not further costs will be imposed because of Russian actions that destabilize Ukraine.
There is more, but you get the drift. In this case one can hardly blame Carney. He is trying to explain a policy of inaction and reality avoidance. In a sense then, his words perfectly convey the White House’s complete failure to articulate, let alone carry out, an effective defense of a democratic European ally.