Joe Biden arrived in Ukraine today, and to frame the moment Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is issuing blustery threats that seem intended not to advance diplomacy to calm the Ukraine crisis but to inflame it. Indeed, there are hawks on both sides who could foil diplomacy, but so far the Obama administration seems committed to a diplomatic solution. Still, responding to violence over the weekend in eastern Ukraine, where a Russian covert operation is underway to rile up pro-Russian elements there in defiance of the fledgling regime in Kiev, Lavrov noted that the violence—which, it appears, Russian agents have deliberately courted—could be a pretext for wider Russian military action. Here’s the quote from Lavrov:
There has been a surge in appeals to Russia to save them from this outrage. We are being put into an extremely complex position…. Those who are deliberately pursuing a civil war, in a possible attempt to start a big, serious bloody conflict, are pursuing a criminal policy. And we will not only condemn this policy but will also stop it.
Of course, Lavrov’s comments fit Vladimir Putin’s theme of late, namely, that Russia must act as the guarantor of ethnic Russians left outside Russia’s borders when the USSR collapsed. Reports Reuters:
The senior European mediator in eastern Ukraine held his first talks on Monday with the leader of pro-Russian separatists in the city of Slaviansk, a flashpoint of the crisis. Mark Etherington told reporters he met the self-declared, separatist mayor, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, for two hours. He had asked whether Ponomaryov and his group would comply with last week’s Geneva accord under which Russia and Ukraine agreed that militants should disarm and vacate occupied public buildings. Etherington did not say how the separatist leader responded or give further details. He said he also asked about people who had been detained in Slaviansk, including the previous mayor, about reports of maltreatment of the Roma minority and about a gunfight on Sunday in which at least three men were killed.
The mayor and his cohorts have so far resisted compliance with the Geneva agreement, and it isn’t clear whether or not Russia is pressing them to stand down.
Biden has emerged as Obama’s point man on Ukraine and Eastern Europe, and earlier he visited Poland and Lithuania. He’s mostly avoided provocative rhetoric, although the United States has apparently agreed to send symbolic military units to rotate in and out of NATO countries in Eastern Europe. If such deployments remain symbolic—i.e., very small numbers of troops, as it appears, and only temporary—then they’re not likely to worsen the crisis. But if Obama and Biden go along with the ideas of various hawks to dispatch significant forces eastward, then Putin will almost certainly respond in kind.
So what is Obama doing? A troubling piece by Peter Baker in The New York Times on April 19 is headlined “In Cold War Echo, Obama Strategy Writes Off Putin.” In it, he writes:
Mr. Obama has concluded that even if there is a resolution to the current standoff over Crimea and eastern Ukraine, he will never have a constructive relationship with Mr. Putin, aides said. As a result, Mr. Obama will spend his final two and a half years in office trying to minimize the disruption Mr. Putin can cause, preserve whatever marginal cooperation can be saved and otherwise ignore the master of the Kremlin in favor of other foreign policy areas where progress remains possible.
But there’s more going on. It appears that hawks inside the administration, as well as John McCain and other hawks outside, are putting a lot of pressure on Obama to take a tougher stand. According to the Times, the hawks are frustrated with the Obama-Biden decision to hold off:
The more hawkish faction in the State and Defense Departments has grown increasingly frustrated, privately worrying that Mr. Obama has come across as weak and unintentionally sent the message that he has written off Crimea after Russia’s annexation. They have pressed for faster and more expansive sanctions, only to wait while memos sit in the White House without action.
The Times adds:
The prevailing view in the West Wing, though, is that while Mr. Putin seems for now to be enjoying the glow of success, he will eventually discover how much economic harm he has brought on his country. Mr. Obama’s aides noted the fall of the Russian stock market and the ruble, capital flight from the country and the increasing reluctance of foreign investors to expand dealings in Russia.
So far, Obama and Biden seem committed to diplomacy, and they’ve secured the accord with Russia that includes the OSCE monitoring mission. But they have to resist the hawks both inside and outside. Meanwhile, what about the hawks on the other side—and what if, among those hawks, is Putin himself?
Read Next: William Greider on how under Putin, Russia is acting a lot like the US.