The American bows to European passivity on Putin
WSJ Editorial, March 26, 2014
Delivering the keynote address of this week's European tour, President Obama rejected Russia's invasion of Ukraine point-by-point with lawyerly logic. If the stately Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels on Wednesday had been the Oxford Union debating society, the American would have carried the evening.
But Vladimir Putin has no time for another tutorial "that in the 21st century the borders of Europe cannot be redrawn with force, that international law matters." He gobbled up Crimea in three weeks at zero cost in the 21st century and may want a bigger chunk of Ukraine's south or east. Nothing Mr. Obama said or did in Europe gives the Russian leader a compelling reason to rethink his assault on the post-Cold War order.
In five years at the White House, Mr. Obama ignored America's relations with Europe and failed to anticipate Russian revanchism. Yet the leader of the Atlantic alliance and the world's sole superpower can still rally long-standing allies—as long as he leads and argues for a robust strategy to deter Russian aggression. This week he has not. Instead he has settled for minor sanctions, rhetorical pleading, and more diplomatic "off-ramps" than I-95. To a KGB man like Mr. Putin, that sounds like weakness.
Start with sanctions. Ahead of the trip, U.S. officials said Mr. Obama would push the EU to ramp up economic pressure on Russia. In a promising first step, Washington put several Putin insiders and a Russian bank on a financial blacklist. Facing resistance from Cyprus, Italy and others, the EU refused to follow. Mr. Obama then yielded to European passivity. On Wednesday he said "sanctions will expand" only if Russia's leadership "stays on its current course."
Translation: Mr. Putin can keep Crimea as long as he stops there. But why would he? The U.S. and its allies had promised to exact a cost for his land grab in Ukraine. Instead the response has been "anemic," as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates put it on these pages Wednesday. Mr. Putin can logically conclude that the price also wouldn't be high for an incursion elsewhere in Ukraine or his continuing campaign to destabilize the new government in Kiev.
On security, Mr. Obama usefully confirmed America's commitment to its allies in the Brussels speech. "What we will do—always—is uphold our solemn obligation, our Article 5 duty to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of our allies," he said. Yet he offered no appeal or promise to bolster NATO's defenses or deploy forces to front-line states. Mr. Putin would have noticed that. Mr. Obama also didn't make any new commitments to boost missile defenses or announce a halt to the U.S. troop drawdown in Europe.
Instead he tried to assuage Mr. Putin's neuroses over NATO, as if that is what drove him into Crimea. "America and the world and Europe has an interest in a strong and responsible Russia, not a weak one," he said. "Make no mistake: Neither the United States nor Europe has any interest in controlling Ukraine. We have sent no troops there." And: "Of course, Ukraine is not a member of NATO—in part because of its close and complex history with Russia. Nor will Russia be dislodged from Crimea or deterred from further escalation by military force."
The message that Kiev will hear in all this is: You're on your own.
As he has since the Ukrainian crisis began, President Obama sounded almost a defeated tone, beseeching the Russian czar to stop and talk it over. "Russia has resisted diplomatic overtures," he said at one point, plaintively stating the obvious—before calling again on Russia to "de-escalate" and take the diplomatic off-ramp.
The Kremlin isn't dumb. If the off-ramp is always available and nothing stands in the road ahead, why get off the road at all?