international analysis and commentary

How Obama knows arming the Ukrainians is a bad idea

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As is true of most calamities, the utterly ineffective Western response to President Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine allows for a lot of blame to be spread around. For both Europe and America have retreated to comforting half-policies that do nothing to ameliorate, let alone “solve” the greatest threat to the European order since the end of the Cold War.

In response to the two most dangerous words in the foreign policy lexicon – “Do something!” – America invariably thinks in unhelpful military terms, while the Europeans cannot wait to have another meaningless meeting. In both cases it is the illusion of action that has become the narcotic, rather than actually mastering foreign policy crises.

Taking the adage “if you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail” to an extreme, President Obama shows signs of beginning to bow to the usual ill-informed, misguided hawkishness of the Congress. He seems to be actively considering arming the out-gunned Ukrainians as they try to hold off the Russian-equipped separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The President, by all accounts an intelligent man, surely knows better. That he seems willing to cynically consider adopting a feckless policy merely to keep the Congressional dogs at bay may make great sense within the Washington bubble, but makes absolutely no sense on the ground in eastern Ukraine.

Overall American foreign policy simply will not begin to work again until the White House conjures up initiatives – such as the masterful Containment Doctrine of the Cold War – that make sense both politically in America, and on their own terms, out in the wider world.

The domestic factors that explain the dangerous turn

However, it is easy to understand how President Obama’s focus – having weathered another significant midterm defeat that has left Republicans in control of both houses of Congress, most governorships, and most state legislatures – has strayed to the immediate political realities of the fix he finds himself in. For example, ever-hawkish John McCain has been newly installed as Chairman of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee. Republican interventionists are in the ascendant in both the House and the Senate. While Senator McCain is not about to join St. Paul on the road to Damascus and become a champion of the administration, by acceding to his wishes over arming the Ukrainians the White House can at least keep domestic discontent under control.

This can buy President Obama some goodwill with his enemies in Congress, votes he will need if he is to have any chance of passing either of the monumentally important regional free trade initiatives now under consideration: The Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with Europe, or the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with much of Asia.

These two mammoth trade deals are about far more than economics; they cement America’s still-central position with its major allies in the new era of multipolarity. They amount to the last, best, chance the White House has to argue that historically it rose to the challenge of re-making American foreign policy fit for purpose in the new era of many powers.

The problem is that the Democratic Party has become ever-more protectionist since the salad days of Bill Clinton. The only way President Obama can possibly hope to secure either trade deal is with majority support of the Republican Party, as the protectionist Democrats will desert him in droves over this. By giving in on arming the Ukrainians, the President may feel he is buying himself goodwill on these central foreign policy goals.

All of this is entirely understandable, but it must be avoided at all costs. For like it or not (and I do not) America and Western credibility are already far too much on the line in Ukraine; to increase involvement in what amounts to a losing cause does not serve America (or anyone else) well.

The reality of Ukraine

To save us all a lot of heartache, I’d suggest we club together and buy Congress a map to explain the following: it will always be far easier for next-door neighbor Russia to resupply its allies than it will be for the West to change the balance of military power on the ground in Ukraine. Such a mindless policy would challenge Putin in the areas of his greatest strength, military power and geographic proximity.

And if the Ukrainian crisis has illustrated anything, it ought to be the obvious fact that the Kremlin cares far more about the ultimate outcome in eastern Ukraine than does any individual Western power, and is willing to spend blood and treasure to affect the end state on the ground, in a way the West is palpably not. That is the hard reality of Ukraine.

There is a sensible way forward if we truly care about the future of Ukraine (and incidentally the continued relevance of the Western alliance). We can cut a deal with Putin along these lines: Ukraine will be constituted as a neutral state, neither fully in the Russian orbit, nor ever a member of NATO or the EU.

The country’s new constitution will be a federal document with large amounts of power being devolved to the local level – thus safeguarding the Russian-speaking minority. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the rest of the West will pour aid into the country (the latest deal envisages $40 billion over the next four years), in return for dramatic structural reforms – as well as a massive drive against the endemic corruption that is such a part of Ukrainian life. It must be made very clear to Kiev that any failure to follow through on economic reform amounts to their absolute last chance.

Putin must also be made aware that this is his last moment of reckoning as well; but the sticks used to curb his behavior are economic. It must be made crystal clear to him that a failure to abide by Ukraine’s genuine neutrality (think of Austria or Finland during the Cold War) will mean the US will immediately cut him out of the global banking system, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT). Given the horrendous state of the Russian economy, his days will surely then be numbered.

Instead, for the White House to escalate its military involvement in Ukraine to avoid standing up to a wrongheaded Congress fails the test of both practicality and ethics at the same time. To further tarnish fading Western credibility in the name of political cynicism and expedience certainly isn’t why Barack Obama got elected twice. Both America and the West deserve better than this.