Unless you’re deaf, dumb and blind, it’s obvious that Vladimir Putin, Russia’s obstreperous president, is running a major covert operation in eastern Ukraine, including the dispatch of a limited number of Russian special forces and support for pro-Russian militias there. It isn’t quite clear yet whether Putin is (a) preparing the ground for a Crimea-style takeover of part or all of Ukraine (unlikely), (b) trying to destabilize Ukraine so that it, and its Western allies, agree to the radical decentralization and federalization plan that Russia has demanded, or (c) making it clear that Ukraine ought not to link its political and economic future with the West, or else. But whichever it is, it’s a dangerous game. So how should President Obama respond?
There is, of course, a diplomatic solution—and within Ukraine itself, that means some sort of decentralization that allows eastern Ukraine some form of very limited autonomy. That would be a compromise between a strong central state in Kiev, in which the president appoints governors of regions, and the sort of neat-total autonomy that Russia favors.
The United States is very limited in its options. Militarily, there’s no real response that makes any sense whatsoever, and it appears that Obama gets that. Ukraine’s utterly disorganized armed forces are no match for the Russian army in any conceivable context, so the idea of sending either significant arms or even nonlethal military aid—“like body armor, night-vision goggles, communications gear and aviation fuel,” as proposed by Gen. Wesley K. Clark and Philip A. Karber—to Ukraine can’t possibly bolster Ukraine’s forces enough even to slow down either a Russian action to seize eastern Ukraine or a blitzkrieg into Kiev, if that’s what Putin is planning. Similarly, the idea—from a neocon-linked former American ambassador to Iraq, James Jeffrey—to deploy ground troops to Poland, the Baltic states and Romania would escalate the confrontation to no good end, since none of those nations are directly threatened by the Ukraine crisis and it would probably force Putin to escalate further.
So far, Obama has reportedly rejected both Gen. Clark’s recommendations and isn’t considering Jeffrey’s idea, but a further escalation by Putin would certainly force Obama to respond far more harshly than the limited array of sanctions announced so far. According to The Wall Street Journal, Obama is reviewing a range of responses, including greatly expanded economic sanctions and even the sort of military deployment that Ambassador Jeffrey calls for.
It should be pointed out that Ukraine is a sovereign country, and that whatever it does to protect its security and national integrity is its own business. In that context, the fact that CIA Director John Brennan paid a visit to Kiev—to howls of outrage from Moscow—or that Ukraine has decided to hire private contractors, including the former Blackwater, to help Kiev reassert control of cities in eastern Ukraine where pro-Russian militants are acting up, isn’t ground for Russian complaints. The White House has properly endorsed Ukraine’s attempts to suppress the pro-Russian gangs in cities along the Russia-Ukraine border, although those efforts are weak and badly managed, given Ukraine’s overall chaotic state and limited resources. Still, so far it appears that Ukraine isn’t willing to shed a lot of blood in suppressing the pro-Russian actions, since that would only increase the enmity toward Kiev in eastern Ukraine and inflame things further—besides giving Russia a pretext to intervene further because of Putin’s flimsy and unsubstantiated claim that Kiev “fascists” are threatening ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians.
According to Josh Rogin and Eli Lake at The Daily Beast, the purpose of Brennan’s Kiev visit was to begin the process of sharing “real-time intelligence” with Kiev, though for what reason isn’t clear, since Ukraine can’t possibly withstand Russian military pressure. It’s possible that the United States will work more closely with Ukraine on deployments of Ukrainian forces in cities to the east affected by Russian covert ops.
But the Ukraine crisis faces Obama with an exceedingly difficult challenge. He can’t afford to issue any red lines, such as the one he issued vis-à-vis Syria, since the United States simply does not have the wherewithal to confront Russian militarily in what is essentially Russia’s backyard, nor is the American interest in Ukraine significant enough to warrant a showdown. Critics of Obama, however, are pointing to Syria—where Obama has so far opted against war—as a sign of the president’s alleged weakness, adding that the Ukraine crisis is a Russian test of Obama’s will. However, as David Ignatius puts it in The Washington Post:
As President Obama looks at the Ukraine crisis, he sees an asymmetry of interests: Simply put, the future of Ukraine means more to Vladimir Putin’s Russia than it does to the United States or Europe. For Putin, this is an existential crisis; for the West, so far, it isn’t—as the limited U.S. and European response has demonstrated.
And Ignatius adds:
Obama doesn’t want to turn Ukraine into a proxy war with Russia. For this reason, he is resisting proposals to arm the Ukrainians. The White House thinks arming Kiev at this late stage would invite Russian intervention without affecting the outcome. The United States is providing limited intelligence support for Kiev, but nothing that would tilt the balance.
But the real meaning of the Ukraine crisis is that, unless the ongoing diplomacy resolves it in a compromise between Russia and the West, US-Russia relations will be in a deep freeze for many years to come, and that could affect a host of regional wars and crises, from Syria and Iraq to Iran and Afghanistan and beyond.
Read Next: Conn Hallinan on how ethnic tensions and economic crisis have strengthened Europe’s secession movements