September 1, 2014

Russia: A Western Lack of Will

A new Russian-backed advance in Ukraine raises the stakes.

After Ukrainian forces began regaining ground earlier this month in northeastern Ukraine, the fighting has shifted southward. A new Russian-backed advance threatens to reunite Russia with the Crimean peninsula annexed earlier this year with the fig leaf of a rigged referendum. Now under threat are the coastal communities of Novoazovsk and Mariupol along the Sea of Azov in the south of Ukraine, a territory which rebels are now dubbing Novorossiya – “New Russia.” Vladimir Putin even suggested “statehood” for eastern Ukraine as a solution.

On Thursday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko canceled a planned visit to Turkey, saying “an invasion of Russian forces has taken place.” While Russia denies its troops are in Ukraine, U.S. and NATO reports claim that “well over” 1,000 Russian troops are indeed participating in the invasion. The two sides also engaged in a prisoner swap over the weekend, with Ukraine releasing 10 Russian paratroopers in exchange for 63 of its soldiers captured by Russia.

As things were looking more grim for Ukrainian interests, they weren’t getting a lot of help from the West. Investor’s Business Daily put it succinctly in an editorial Thursday: “Putin’s apparent plan of intimidating Europe into submission seems to be working.” Handwringing in the face of Russian advances has become the normal reaction, with little penalty to Putin for his annexation of Crimea during the spring, and little to suggest a strong response now.

Expansion of sanctions is an option, and Barack Obama noted Thursday they were having an effect. “I think that the sanctions that we’ve already applied have been effective,” said Obama. “Our intelligence shows that the Russians know they’ve been effective, even though it may not appear on Russian television. And I think there are ways for us to deepen or expand the scope of some of that work.” However, the FBI says Russia may have countered those sanctions with a cyber-attack on our financial system earlier this month.

But that expansion of scope frightens European countries that depend on Russia for natural gas, and while Barack Obama will meet with NATO allies this week, he’s taken military action off the table – as if it were in doubt. “We’re not taking military action to solve the Ukraine problem,” Obama said.

Opposition has been fierce to the wobbly approach. Speaking on Fox News Channel’s Special Report, analyst Charles Krauthammer blasted the president. “[Obama] basically said, ‘We’re going to do nothing. I’ll wait until I chat with the allies next week.’ I thought he had a phone,” joked Krauthammer. “How about picking up the phone and talking with the allies? You know the phone is a way to communicate rather rapidly.”

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) was also skeptical, believing we can go beyond sanctions and provide Ukrainian forces with weapons and battlefield intelligence. “For God’s sake, can’t we help these people defend themselves?” he asked. But unless NATO and our other European allies draw a line in the sand – with meaning, not just rhetoric – Vladimir Putin will take what he wants from Ukraine and perhaps expand his map even further.

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