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Will Ritter: Putin’s endgame, and why Obama has it right on Ukraine

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April 30, 2014, 4:15 p.m. | Op-ed — by Will Ritter

Russian President Vladimir Putin
© AFP

Will Ritter

U.S. President Barack Obama has been on the receiving end of plenty of criticism lately, both in the international pro-Ukraine community and from his ubiquitous domestic Republican Party detractors, for not taking tougher action against Moscow for its not-so-covert destabilization campaign in Eastern Ukraine.

But the reality is that Obama’s approach of applying carefully-calibrated sanctions that ramp up the economic pressure on Moscow in stages is exactly what is needed to sow doubt in the Kremlin about whether it can afford the costs associated with of a violent military takeover of Ukraine. 

Obama is following the correct strategy of holding the more serious “Stage 3” sector-wide sanctions in reserve as a deterrent against a Russian attack (either special “black” operations or overt military) on additional cities in Eastern/Central Ukraine or even Kyiv itself; although most of the media coverage has focused on the situation in Eastern Ukraine, no one should forget that Russia also has its forces poised on Ukraine’s northern border near the capital. 

Putin’s current behavior toward Ukraine is based primarily on emotion, and only secondarily on consideration of Russian strategic interests. And the emotional endgame of Russia’s neo-imperialists has little to do with recapturing Donetsk, Crimea, or other parts of southeastern Ukraine. The real goal of emotional Russian imperialism is the subjugation and re-Russification of Kyiv and central Ukraine.

Ukraine-friendly Republicans who have spoken out against Obama’s policy, such as New Hampshire Congressman Kelly Ayotte, Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, and defeated presidential candidate Mitt Romney, are nonetheless offering absolutely no viable alternative strategy for forcing Putin to stand down. There are also conservative Republicans (joined by some liberal Democrats) who argue that the US should simply “stay out of Russia’s backyard” and let Putin do as he wishes in Ukraine; such voices are even further off the mark. Finally, there are the grotesquely unpatriotic Republicans who openly embrace Putin’s machismo, wishfully viewing him as the rival capable of getting the best of Obama that their party has been unable to generate for the past six years. 

Unlike the ambiguous, “no good outcome” conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan, the situation in Ukraine fits neatly into the interventionist side of Obama’s foreign policy philosophy. First, there is a clear moral principle at stake: the right of Ukraine’s citizenry to determine who they wish to associate with. Second, and just as importantly, Washington holds the effective levers it needs to support Ukrainians’ effort to make this determination free of Russian coercion. 

Obama was absolutely on target when he stated in a mid-March speech that Ukraine represents “a contest of ideas”. Ukrainians must be afforded the opportunity to freely choose between the societal model offered by US and Europe and that offered by Russia. 

Another key tenet of Obama in the foreign policy arena is the moralism that “right makes might, and not the other way around”. Although considerations of raw military strength certainly play into the calculus regarding Ukraine, they need not decide the ultimate outcome. The Kremlin’s shameless effort to prevent Ukraine from holding a free and fair presidential election on May 25 is a flagrant violation of all international norms, not to mention basic morality; Russia is, as Obama put it, simply “on the wrong side of history.” 

Not 15 minutes go by on Russian state television these days without a mention of the “fascists and neo-Nazis in Kyiv.”

Putin is desperate to stop the May 25 presidential election because he knows full well that far-right parties command only single-digit (5-7%) support from the Ukrainian electorate. After new elections put a moderate pro-EU government in power, Putin and the state-controlled Russian media will have no narrative left to spin. 

While it is true that thus far, Putin has managed to play a weak hand of cards with considerable skill, he can only continue to bluff for so long. Obama knows that the West has Putin over a barrel: Russia’s elites need access to the international banking system, their US and European real estate holdings, and objective courts. 

The sarcastic and dismissive response from Moscow regarding this week’s rather mild ramp-up in US and EU sanctions is a poor attempt to disguise the Russian elites’ underlying fear about the toll that a comprehensive Western embargo, including the possible ejection of Russia from international oil markets and a freeze-out from the dollar system, could have on the country’s economy, not to mention personal fortunes. 

Although the Kremlin is trying mightily to muddy the waters, Putin’s choice is being further distilled by the day. He can continue to escalate, ultimately leading to a nightmarish endgame that would see him set his brutish paramilitaries loose on Kyiv to murder tens of thousands of Ukrainians (because, rest assured, the resistance to any Russian occupation of Kyiv will be fierce), and thereby drag the heart of Ukraine kicking and screaming back into a renewed Russian empire. The price of this course of action will be a return to the isolation of Russia’s economy from the West, along with a massive escalation in NATO’s fighting readiness. 

Alternatively, Putin can refrain from any further escalation beyond the territory that has already been seized, give up his Trojan horse “federation” demand, and acknowledge that Ukraine’s Russian-speaking provinces are fully capable of negotiating their own model of governance with Kyiv without Russian “help”. This path will permit Putin to escape with a slap on the wrist for his annexation of Crimea and his destabilization of the Donbass, where events now appear to have moved past the point of no return in terms of keeping Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts inside Ukraine.   

Those in the pro-Ukraine community who are upset that Obama did not do more with pre-emptive sanctions or threats of force to deter Russia from moving into the Donbass should remember that the President’s primary job is to act in US interests, not to play the role of global policeman. It was never realistic to expect the US and/or NATO to step in to conduct an offensive operation on largely hostile territory (which would entail substantial civilian casualties) that Ukraine is incapable of launching on its own; any Republican president would have made the same choice. 

In terms of Obama’s refusal thus far to impose the maximum sanctions, it must be remembered that kicking Russia out of the international economy too early would remove the West’s economic leverage to protect central regions in Ukraine, where there is certain to be mass bloodshed in the event of a Russian incursion. The critics also fail to note that, even though Ukraine is not a NATO member, Obama has not explicitly taken a US-led military intervention to defend Ukrainian civilians off the table as a response to such a dire scenario. 

Western analysts often suffer from “Putin envy,” overestimating the Russian leader as a brilliant strategist with a master plan. Putin is merely a brilliant opportunist and skilled short-term tactician. He plays the hand he is dealt, tries induce mistakes from his opponents, and then moves in to take advantage by consolidating his incremental gains. 

But ultimately, the only way that Putin, whose country has an economy some 20 times smaller than that of the US and EU, can win in Ukraine is if the West falls for his bluffs and throws in the towel by abandoning the sanctions route unilaterally. Obama has made it clear that this isn’t going to happen on his watch. 

To conclude, assertions that Obama is weak on Ukraine, or that he doesn’t care about the fate of the country, are preposterous. To the contrary, Obama has forcefully stated the case for supporting Ukrainians’ right to choose the course of their own future. And no one in Russia, the US or Europe should doubt his resolve to follow through on tough retaliatory measures if Putin refuses to listen to reason and bring his threatening, openly disrespectful behavior toward Ukraine and its citizens back into line with 21st-century international norms.

Will Ritter is a Kyiv freelance journalist.

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