The Mess Obama Made on the Way to the So-Called Ceasefire in Ukraine

Patrick Smith

Assuming the ceasefire declared in Ukraine as of sundown Friday holds—and the early signs are favorable—we celebrate the end of a conflict that has claimed a startling 2,600 lives since it broke out in April. But not so fast. It’s also time to recognize the Obama administration’s strategy in Ukraine as among the worst of its numerous foreign-policy errors.

The agreement just forged between Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko, the Ukrainian president, is acknowledged all around as the design Putin suddenly proposed when he got off a plane in Mongolia late last week. In all likelihood, this was the outcome of protracted talks Putin has held in secret with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Related: How Obama’s White House Lost Ukraine in a Few Stupid Steps

In effect, the demonized Russian has done again what he did twice in the Middle East last year. He saved Obama’s bacon when he got Syria to dispose of its chemical weapons, allowing our policy-challenged leader to step back from his “red line” threat to bomb Bashar al-Assad. Then he back-channeled with the Rouhani government in Iran, urging Tehran to put its nuclear program in play as pressure to aggress was mounting in Israel and among conservatives in Congress.

And so, to Ukraine. All hail the cessation of hostilities. Let’s hope that the months of bungling at the White House and State Department result in lessons learned.  Let’s think in terms of a series of misreadings.

First of all, the Obama administration misread Europe very badly. It’s unpopular to say so, but the European Union had brokered a pretty good deal between the elected president Viktor Yanukovich and the demonstrators in Kiev last February. The deal focused on constitutional reform to diminish presidential power, and early elections so that voters could get him out of office if they so chose.

This would’ve been “democracy promotion” properly defined. Instead, with unseemly haste, State backed a coup precipitated by violence-loving extremists who pushed the protests beyond their intent. They sent Yanukovich into exile and gave power to unelected provisionals.

Related: Putin Wants Eastern Ukraine—Let Him Have It

The Europeans have been half-hearted partners in the three rounds of sanctions against Russia that have ensued. Last week it came to this: Obama dismissed Putin’s peace plan during a visit to Estonia only to arrive at the NATO summit in Wales and find most E.U. counterparts on board with it. Who has the lead on the Ukraine question? Unambiguously it is the E.U. and the Russians prevailing on the Ukrainians.

Second, there is Russia. Moscow has advocated a ceasefire and a negotiated settlement at least since April. In the intervening months, a lot of Ukrainian blood, most of it from the veins of civilians, has spilled. The U.S. policy has been, ‘if the Russians favor it, it must be wrong,’ a policy of retrograde Cold War thinking.

Putin understood from the first that no settlement is possible without attending to the grievances of the Russian-speaking majority in the eastern sections of Ukraine. Merkel long understood this, too. And now the flat-footed Obama and Secretary of State Kerry must tag along.

The brain to have harnessed here is Henry Kissinger’s. The octogenarian of détente and realpolitik has argued for months that Russia’s desire for an agreeable, neutral nation on its borders is a fact of life -- as ordinary as it is for Americans when they review the western hemisphere.

Related: How Europe’s Economic Slump Could Doom Ukraine

Third, Obama’s Washington has misread the Ukrainians. Poroshenko stunned E.U. heads of state in Wales when he disclosed that one NATO member is already arming Kiev with high-tech weapons. He didn’t name it, but the top candidates include the U.S. and Poland.

Equally, it is out in the open at last that the war in the east has been fought not inconsiderably by overtly neo-Nazi militias, the very folk we were told for months were nothing but the conjuring of overheated Russian propagandists. The Wikipedia entry on the Azov Battalion, including images of the National Socialist flag it flies, is disturbing to put it mildly. Take a look at them in Saturday’s New York Times. Should Obama, Kerry, and Vice-President Biden be tangled up with professed anti-Semites who wear black ski masks in battle?

The trade press has reported what we have known anecdotally for weeks: The new crowd in Kiev shows all signs of corruption at least as bad as Yanukovich’s. Ukraine is in new coal contracts with the U.S., Canada, South Africa, and (pending) Poland to replace lost production in the east; with these comes news that in one recent week at least 150,000 metric tonnes of thermal coal was stolen, turning up on the black markets in Moldova, Romania, and Slovakia. Nothing new here, but this is precisely the point.

Related: Four Ways NATO Could Affect the Ukraine Crisis

Finally, there is NATO. The late George Kennan, the famed architect of containment, turned on his creation long before he died in 2005 to warn that NATO’s mission to push eastward had got way out of hand, notably as it provoked the Russians along its post-Soviet borders. Again, Obama misses an opportunity to import some wisdom into his administration.

At the summit in Wales, it was agreed to establish a NATO rapid-reaction force in Europe. We’ll see how eagerly the Germans and others contribute. Poland wants NATO troops in Eastern Europe; the Baltic nations want missile defense systems on their soil that can target Russian installations. Obama’s Washington is the key driver in these developments and proposals.

And Obama’s Washington is wrong. You don’t take the Poles and Balts as the authoritative voices of experience and urge NATO further in their direction. You take them as deeply, maybe eternally marked by the Soviet experience and consequently prone to poor judgment. Exhibit A: The Poles argue that Putin’s intent is to re-establish the Soviet empire, an idea any Russianist can tell you is a paranoically inaccurate interpretation of Moscow’s strategic aspiration.  

The path to a negotiated settlement in Ukraine that will include some form of decentralization or federalization—contentious terms at the moment—now lies ahead. We should take a lesson from the long and winding road that led to this moment.

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