Ukraine and the Weary Hegemon
June 18, 2015
The Ukraine crisis has demonstrated both the benefits and the pitfalls of what an Obama administration staffer once infelicitously described as “leading from behind,” that is, allowing Washington’s allies to take the lead in crisis diplomacy. The Ukraine conflict was a most unwelcome surprise for a U.S. administration already engaged in fighting the Islamic State (IS), seeking a nuclear accord with Iran, contemplating a delayed pullout from Afghanistan, and attempting to carry out a pivot to Asia, all while pursuing Russian support for many of these objectives. Unfortunately, the Ukraine conflict is symptomatic of a much bigger threat to European stability and security, and it can only be resolved on favorable terms with a much higher level of U.S. involvement, which the White House is only now beginning to offer.
Prioritizing the Middle East
Throughout the Ukraine crisis, the Europeans, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, have been at the forefront of the West’s diplomatic response. To be sure, the United States has played an important role in promoting consensus with and among its European allies over the type and level of sanctions imposed on Moscow. Yet on the diplomatic front, Washington has mostly yielded to Berlin. It has also left the heavy lifting of bailing out Ukraine’s economy to the Europeans, while refusing thus far to employ its hard power to arm the Ukrainian military (though Washington did begin a program to train Ukrainian National Guard forces in May).
The Obama administration calculated that, insofar as Ukraine represented a crisis of European security, it made sense to let the Europeans lead, given their deeper economic and political stakes in Ukraine, and because Washington had enough on its plate elsewhere in the world, especially in the Middle East. The campaign against the so-called Islamic State has in particular consumed U.S. military planners’ attention, while the decision to slow the withdrawal of U.S. and allied forces from Afghanistan has provided another call on U.S. military capacity. Meanwhile, the Obama administration is rushing to complete a nuclear accord with Iran, which it fears Russia could seek to disrupt should the confrontation between Washington and Moscow escalate.
Amid this plethora of challenges, the United States has clearly chosen to focus on the Middle East, while seeking at best to hold the line with Russia. One way to measure the level of Washington’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis is to look at the amount of money it has spent. U.S. assistance has included $2 billion in loan guarantees (with another $1 billion potentially on the table later this year), along with around $400 million in direct assistance including nonlethal supplies for the Ukrainian military. In comparison, the U.S. Department of Defense stated in October that Washington’s involvement in the conflict against IS costs roughly $7 million to $10 million per day, a figure that is likely to increase along with the level of U.S. involvement. Even as U.S. hard power has been notably absent from Ukraine, U.S. warplanes are actively bombing IS targets, while the Pentagon is supplying arms to anti-IS Kurdish fighters.
The End of the “Reset”
Further complicating the picture is that in some ways Moscow is a U.S. partner in the fight against IS, along with other major administration priorities. It was a Russian proposal for the Syrian regime to give up its chemical weapons that saved the Obama administration from having to back up its disastrous 2012 “red line” comment. Over the past two years, Washington and Moscow have cooperated quietly to implement that agreement even as their broader relationship has deteriorated. Russia has also been supportive of U.S. efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, an undertaking that the Obama administration regards as perhaps its best opportunity to leave a lasting legacy on U.S. foreign policy. Washington’s perceived need to keep the Russians onboard for its efforts in the Middle East complicates any attempt to confront Russia directly in Ukraine.
In a sense, the logic underpinning this balancing act is reminiscent of the Obama administration’s initial approach to Russia policy, a period now characterized as the “reset,” and symbolized by the large red (and mistranslated) reset button that then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented to Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov of Russia in Geneva in 2009.
Like the administration’s current Middle East balancing act, the reset aimed at securing Russian cooperation on areas of mutual interest, while agreeing to disagree elsewhere. Judged by the limited aim of securing Russian support for U.S. initiatives on Iran, Afghanistan, and nonproliferation, the reset was a success, even if it did not transform the foundations of the U.S.-Russia relationship.
During the reset era, the White House could argue that the areas of disagreement (e.g., the crackdown on Russian civil society or diverging interpretations of the Arab Spring) paled in comparison to the areas of common interest. With Russian forces on the ground and more than 6,200 dead in Ukraine, that argument is becoming ever harder to make, though in practice, the administration’s emphasis on ensuring Russian support for its Middle Eastern endeavors means that the underlying logic remains the same.
Toward More Robust Engagement?
Struggling to contain IS and curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions, not to mention follow through on its commitment to reorient U.S. global strategy to the Asia Pacific, the Obama administration has been slow to recognize the seriousness of the Russian revisionist challenge currently playing out in Ukraine. That is, Russia’s actions aim not just at carving up Ukraine, but at upending the post-1991 settlement in Europe, while checking the expansion of European norms, values, and institutions.
What happens in Ukraine has a larger significance for the United States than the administration likes to acknowledge, because at the end of the day, Russian intervention is less about Ukraine per se than about establishing new parameters for relations between Russia and the West. Moscow is unhappy with what it perceives to be its exclusion from Europe’s post–Cold War security system and is at once seeking to prevent the expansion of that system closer to its borders (through intervention in Ukraine) and to weaken it from within (through a range of financial, energy, media, and other tools deployed within the European Union). Underlying this entire offensive is a growing conviction among the Russian elite that Russia, along with the rest of the former Soviet world, is inherently incompatible with the liberal democratic West and that these two cultural-civilizational blocs are locked in a long-term struggle for influence across Europe and Eurasia.
Though Ukraine is not a NATO member and the United States has no explicit obligation to protect it from its larger neighbor, Washington’s hopes for both a secure Europe and a productive relationship with Russia turn on what happens in and around Ukraine. If Russia succeeds in keeping Ukraine weak and the West divided, its revisionist ambitions are likely to expand. Conversely, frustrating Russian ambitions in Ukraine is the first step toward reengaging Moscow from a position of strength, which is critical to establishing a new equilibrium in Europe. Given the stakes, Washington has a clear interest in finding a settlement in Ukraine that not only ends the fighting, but that also reinforces the secure, liberal Europe that has been a touchstone of U.S. global engagement since the end of the Cold War.
Given the scope of Russian ambitions, not to mention Moscow’s success in compromising elements of the European political and economic establishment, no effective strategy for countering Russia’s revisionist ambitions is conceivable without much more robust U.S. engagement. Washington is the only actor capable of getting the West to speak with one voice and the only one with the realistic ability to offer a hard power response to Russian military activities.
While administration officials recognize the scope of Russian actions, the need for at least limited cooperation at a time when the United States is wary of renewed overstretch has made Washington cautious about confronting Moscow directly. Outside pressure, including from Congress, as well as growing frustration with Russian intransigence is pushing the White House in a more assertive direction, even as it remains wedded to the Minsk-II agreement—of which it is not even a signatory—as the basis for a lasting solution.
Starting with Secretary of State John Kerry’s trip to Sochi in May for meetings with President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov, Washington is beginning to assert itself as a party to the conflict (even if Kerry’s visit was poorly received in many European capitals, where he was accused of cutting the Europeans out of the loop). U.S. forces are also now training Ukrainian National Guard troops in Lviv, even as the White House remains unwilling to proceed with deliveries of lethal military equipment.
From Kyiv to Moscow, via Washington
At least in Europe, Russia has become a revisionist power. To the extent that the United States and its allies value the post–Cold War settlement, with its embrace of liberal values and the vision of a Europe whole and free, they need to prioritize the defeat of Moscow’s revisionist aims much more so than they have done so far, starting in Ukraine. The United States in particular needs to view itself as a central player in the drama. A more prominent U.S. role would go some way toward meeting Moscow’s demand for recognition as a great power, since it is only the United States that, as a great power itself, can confer that recognition by sitting at the table to discuss a resolution to the crisis. At the same time, the United States has a far larger arsenal of tools available, not to mention the capacity to escalate the economic, political, and even (indirectly) military pressure on Moscow in a way that the Europeans are unlikely to do.
Under its least Euro-centric administration in a century, Washington has been slow to appreciate the significance of what is happening on Europe’s doorstep. In Ukraine specifically, Washington can do more through both energetic diplomacy and additional pressure (military and nonmilitary) against Russia, buying the Europeans time to address the other aspects of the Russian challenge.
Rebuffing Russia’s ambitions in Ukraine is the first, and most important, step in renewing the U.S. commitment to a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace. It is not a task that Washington can afford to offload onto the Europeans.
(A version of this article was originally published in French by the Institut de Recherche Stratégique de l’École Militaire of the French Ministry of Defense. The original is available for download at http://www.defense.gouv.fr/irsem/publications/lettre-de-l-irsem/la-lettre-de-l-irsem .)
Jeffrey Mankoff is a fellow and deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2015 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.