The president's dismissal of Russia's threat comes back to haunt him.
President Obama was AWOL on Saturday when his national security team met to discuss the rapidly unfolding events in Ukraine, including Russia’s expanded military presence in the Crimea portion of Ukraine. Only a day before, President Obama had warned Russia that there would be “costs” if it violated Ukraine’s sovereignty. Saturday morning, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his answer. He thumbed his nose at Obama. Once again, the Obama administration’s vaunted button to “re-set” relations with Russia in a more positive direction has blown up in its face, as Putin continues to play by the rules of realpolitik while Obama flounders. This detached president did not even attend a key national security meeting called to figure out how to best deal with Putin’s latest maneuvers.
Ironically, during the 2012 presidential campaign, President Obama mocked the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney for warning about Russia’s “geopolitical” threat. During one of the presidential debates Obama remarked condescendingly about Romney’s warning, “You said Russia. Not Al Qaida. You said Russia. The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because…the cold war’s been over for 20 years.”
In words that Obama should repeat to himself every night before he goes to sleep, Romney responded: “Russia, I indicated, is a geopolitical foe…and I said in the same paragraph I said and Iran is the greatest national security threat we face. Russia does continue to battle us in the U.N. time and time again. I have clear eyes on this. I’m not going to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia or Mr. Putin…”
Romney was right on both counts. Iran, as it pursues its nuclear arms ambitions, is the greatest national security threat that we face. And, as Russia’s willingness to run interference for the Syrian regime at the UN and its present provocative actions in Ukraine prove, Russia under Putin represents a significant geopolitical threat. Obama unfortunately continues to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Iran, as he pursues fruitless negotiations that the Iranian regime is exploiting. And he is now just maybe beginning to take off his rose-colored glasses with respect to Putin’s Russia, as it increasingly flexes its muscles.
Former President George Bush also mistakenly had given Putin the benefit of the doubt back in 2001 when he said, after meeting with Putin, that he thought he could trust the Russian leader. But that was nearly thirteen years ago. Obama has had all the intervening years to observe Putin in action. It became obvious to anyone with his or her eyes wide open that the Russian president operated solely on the basis of realpolitik and was very expert in doing so, as Putin has shown in taking advantage of Obama’s perceived weakness and indecision time and time again.
With respect to the Ukraine crisis, at Putin’s request, the upper house of the Russian Parliament formally granted him the authority to use military force, not just in Crimea but throughout Ukraine. The Russian parliamentary approval for Putin’s use of military force merely ratified the facts on the ground that had already been occurring, as thousands of armed Russian soldiers, often wearing masks and uniforms without any national insignia, reportedly surrounded the regional parliament building and other government facilities in the Crimean capital city of Simferopol. They also effectively closed the region’s two main airports and took control over key communications hubs.
President Obama’s response to Putin’s maneuvers was to call the Russian leader on Saturday and urge him to pull back his military forces or risk isolation in the international community if he refused. Obama also laid out the initial “cost” of Russia’s provocative actions - the U.S. is suspending its participation in preparations for the upcoming Group of 8 economic summit in Sochi, Russia.
“President Obama expressed his deep concern over Russia’s clear violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, which is a breach of international law,” the White House said in its readout of the call. “The United States condemns Russia’s military intervention into Ukrainian territory. The United States calls on Russia to de-escalate tensions by withdrawing its forces back to bases in Crimea and to refrain from any interference elsewhere in Ukraine.”
The Kremlin provided its own readout of the call. It said that Putin pointed out to Obama the “real threat to the lives and health of Russian citizens” currently in Ukraine, and referred to “the provocative and criminal actions on the part of ultranationalists who are in fact being supported by the current authorities in Kiev.”
Meanwhile, at United Nations headquarters in New York, an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council was held on Saturday afternoon to discuss the Ukrainian crisis – the second such meeting in two days. For the first two hours, the Security Council members wrangled behind closed doors on whether they should hold their discussions in public or in private consultations. They reached a compromise of sorts – a brief public meeting followed by much lengthier closed door consultations.
During the open meeting, UN Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson called for restoration of calm and dialogue among all concerned parties. “Now is the time for cool heads to prevail,” he advised. His advice was promptly ignored. The verbal sparks were flying, reminiscent of Cold War sparring in the Security Council that had often paralyzed the UN body from taking any effective action.
The Ukrainian ambassador to the UN, Yuriy Sergeyev, who was invited to attend the open meeting on Saturday, accused Russia of “an act of aggression” in “severe violation of international law.” He added that the “Russian Federation brutally violated the basic principles of Charter of the United Nations obliging all member states to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” He called for the members of the Security Council to take a stand against Russian aggression that interfered with Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. He repeated these themes in remarks to the press after his Security Council statement. He also defended the legality of the Ukrainian parliament’s removal of the ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who has sought refuge in Russia.
Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told the Security Council that Russia had acted at the request of the regional authorities in Crimea, making a dubious distinction in claiming that Russian troops could be deployed "on the territory of Ukraine," but not "against Ukraine." In response to calls for Russia to refrain from intervention to protect its interests, he said that "[W]e can't agree with this at all." Churkin lashed out at the “radicals” in the "illegal" government in Kiev who were allegedly threatening peace and security in Crimea. He questioned the legality of the manner in which Yanukovych was removed from office, noting that Yanukovych had been democratically elected.
Churkin did not speak to reporters on Saturday, but the previous day he had told reporters that the new government in Kiev was not representative of all political factions of Ukraine and was trying to impose its political will on the rest of the country. He accused the European Union of treating Ukraine as its “province” and charged that it was the West’s interference that had helped cause the Ukrainian crisis in the first place.
U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power expressed the strong support of the U.S. for the new government of Ukraine in her remarks to the Security Council on Saturday. Russia’s “intervention is without legal basis - indeed it violates Russia's commitment to protect the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence of Ukraine,” she said. “It is time for the Russian intervention in Ukraine to end.” Ambassador Power also accused the Russians of double standards with regard to its position on national sovereignty. “It is ironic that the Russian Federation regularly goes out of its way in this Chamber to emphasize the sanctity of national borders and of sovereignty,” she said, “but Russian actions in Ukraine are violating the sovereignty of Ukraine and pose a threat to peace and security.”
Ambassador Power proposed that international monitors and observers - including from the UN and OSCE [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, in which Russia and Ukraine are members] be sent to Ukraine. “That's the best way to get the facts, monitor conduct, and prevent any abuses,” she said. Russia so far has shown little inclination to accept this proposal.
In remarks to the press after the completion of the Security Council’s closed door consultations, Ambassador Power said that Russia’s “military presence in Crimea is a violation of international law.”
While the situation on the ground in Ukraine continues to deteriorate, including the Ukrainian naval chief’s pledge of allegiance to the Crimean pro-Russia authorities who are defying the authority of the new central government in Kiev, the war of words from the Obama administration continued to escalate on Sunday. Secretary of State John Kerry warned on “Meet the Press” that Russia was facing isolation and opprobrium from the international community, which could result in trade and investment penalties, asset freezes, denial of visas, and even possible expulsion from the G-8. He accused Putin of “possibly trying to annex Crimea” and said that Russia was displaying 19th century behavior in the 21st century by committing “aggression” on a “phony pretext.” That said, any military option by the U.S. in response to Russia’s actions appears to be off the table at least for now.
What is evident from this serious crisis is that President Obama’s attempt to reset relations with Russia at the outset of his first term has been a dismal failure. He demonstrated weakness when he dropped plans to locate missile interceptors and a radar station in Poland and the Czech Republic without getting anything in return. In March 2012, Obama was overheard on an open mike telling outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that, since he would not be running again for president after the 2012 election, he would have “more flexibility” in dealing with Russia on such matters as missile defense. Medvedev replied: "I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir," a reference to the real power in Russia, Vladimir Putin, who would soon re-assume the presidency. Putin has taken Obama’s measure and is out-maneuvering him at every turn.
In a prior article I theorized that perhaps Obama had decided to support the protests against the Russian-allied ousted president Yanukovych in order to put Russia on defense and “divert Putin’s attention away from the Middle East by causing him to redirect money and resources closer to home.” If so, the strategy appears to be backfiring since Putin is proving that he is perfectly capable of deploying a few thousand troops in Crimea while still continuing to provide active support to the Assad regime. He is simply allowing the presence of Russian troops, without any full-scale Russian occupation, to catalyze a popular movement in Crimea by its Russian speaking majority to push for breaking away completely from Ukraine.
More likely, there was no real Obama offensive strategy playing out in Ukraine and no clear-eyed thinking on what real national security and geopolitical threats we face, much less on how to handle them. Instead, President Obama is reverting to his lead-from-behind, reactive approach to most major foreign policy crises he has faced. Obama owes Mitt Romney an immediate apology.
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