Shadow Government

Five Questions Left Hanging in Ukraine

Despite an avalanche of commentary, I think there are still a few things left to be said -- or, more to the point, left to be asked. Here is my list of five:

What will be Russia's countermoves elsewhere on the chessboard? The commentary has rightly focused on the immediate A-B-C moves: (a) what Russia has done in Crimea, (b) what the West should do in response to that, (c) what Russia would do in Crimea and Ukraine after the West has acted. Less attention has been paid to the things we will all be talking about once those preliminary moves have taken place: how Putin will seek to impose costs on the West for the sanctions and other diplomatic steps we take in move "b." Germany appears to be quite concerned about this, though much of that concern may just be about lost business opportunities. Of greater importance will be the cost-imposing strategies available to Putin elsewhere on the geopolitical chess board, especially Syria, Iran, and perhaps even Afghanistan. The cumulative effect of five years of Obama's policies has been to give Russia something of a whip hand in those areas. We should expect him to wield that lash, though probably more deftly than he has done in Crimea. Russian counter-counter-moves demand a counter of their own, and so the game of diplomacy plays out. President Obama should not fall for the fallacy that so often marks the prescriptions of doves -- it is quite possible the costs Russia could impose elsewhere will be less if the United States leads vigorously than if the United States continues to be feckless. But he should be wary of the opposite error of failing to anticipate those costs and failing to develop strategies to mitigate them.

Is Obama prepared to turn the crisis into an opportunity? The most obvious place for Russian cost-imposing responses also happens to be the place where Obama's existing strategy has most obviously failed: Syria. Put another way, Putin is well-placed to throw sand in the gears of a policy train that has already ground to a standstill. So far, President Obama has shown no willingness to contemplate bold alternatives in Syria and, absent the events in Ukraine, it is possible that his preferred course of action would be to double down on the bets he already made -- bets that required him to keep Russia on side. Putin's misadventure could be seen as liberating Obama from the Sisyphean task of rolling his extant Syria policy back up the hill one more time. Will Obama seize this opportunity to chart a more strategic set of policies in the Middle East and elsewhere?

Will our allies and partners trust President Obama to lead given his dismal record in Syria last September? Consider the unfortunate timing of President Obama's interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, given on the eve of Putin's surprise move. That interview, given to bolster the diplomatic pressure on Prime Minister Netanyahu to make concessions to prop up the faltering Israel-Palestine peace process, now provides a poignant reminder of how poorly the administration handled the confrontation with Syria over its violation of Obama's "red line" on chemical weapons. Worse, it demonstrates that the president is still not willing to evaluate candidly what went wrong. As Elliott Abrams has pointed out, Obama's comments reveal a remarkable self-assessment, one that is very hard to square with the actual facts. Of greatest relevance to the current crisis, Obama narrates the Syrian crisis thus: (i) Obama issues tough threat, (ii) Syria and Russia back down in the face of this credible threat, and (iii) Syria disposes of its chemical weapons. Of course, what actually happened was very different: (i) Obama issued a threat, (ii) Obama retreated from that threat and handed Congress a veto over the wielding of that threat, (iii) on the eve of the likely congressional veto of that threat, and at the moment of maximum Obama weakness, Russia and Syria offered Obama a deal that would yoke Obama to the Assad regime in exchange for some concessions from Syria, (iv) Obama accepts the Syrian deal. Syria paid a price in acknowledging its chemical arsenal and pruning that arsenal slightly, though their behavior since shows that they paid far less of a price than the Obama administration is willing to admit; in exchange, Syria bought the advantage over the West in subsequent negotiations. Reasonable people can debate whether this was a better deal than what would have happened after airstrikes. And reasonable people can concede that Obama's initial threat set this in motion. But it is unreasonable to pretend that Syria and Russia folded in the face of an imminent attack when, in fact, they seized the initiative to force a deal on an administration desperate to be rescued from the diplomatic/political impasse of Obama's own making. If Obama will not candidly acknowledge what happened last fall, how can our partners trust him to lead now?

Are we prepared to understand that the justice dimensions of this crisis are more complex than they appear to be at first glance? Make no mistake about it: Putin's moves have been a crime, a gross violation of international norms. More than that, they were a blunder, for Putin had available myriad less-dicey tools with which to impose his will on a post-Yanukovych Ukraine; whatever short-term benefit he might gain, Putin is risking far greater long-term downsides by going the route he has. But evil and stupid do not mean unintelligible -- and understanding involves more than merely calculating Russian conceptions of power and interest. Ironically, at stake this time was what was also at stake in the 19th-century Crimean War: what political scientist David Welch has called the "justice motive," the "drive to correct a perceived discrepancy between entitlements and benefits." This justice motive was an important factor in explaining what otherwise might look like merely the crass land-grab of an imperial power (what Secretary Kerry dismissed as "19th century behavior"). Tsar Nicholas I launched the Crimean War to redress what he perceived to be an unjustified disregard of the prerogatives of the Orthodox Church within the Ottoman Empire, particularly the Holy Land. Putin talks about the unfolding crisis in Ukraine in similar justice terms, lashing out at the West for disregarding the electoral process seeking to remove the elected government through unlawful means. No one should credit Putin with noble aims anymore than they would credit Tsar Nicholas with properly understanding the Church's rightful role. Moreover, there is a justice motive that explains the Ukrainian opposition's behavior, and their motive is far more compelling than Putin's. But it is not more compelling to Putin. As David Brooks has argued, it is folly to ignore the psychological forces at work in the crisis.

What did Obama and Putin talk about for 90 minutes? A friend of mine drew my attention to the odd disconnect between the length of the call (90 minutes) and the thinness of the read-out of the call. Anyone with experience in these matters could tell you that public read-outs always leave out interesting bits and that leader-to-leader conversations can be stilted, especially during crises like this one. Even so, 90 minutes is far more time than is necessary to cover the acknowledged agenda and talking points. Perhaps the answer is not very interesting: Maybe the time was wasted in lengthy historical digressions, the kind of clock-burning monologues communist apparatchiks specialized back in the day. Or perhaps the answer is more interesting. We won't know until reporters ask.

At almost every turn, the Obama administration has been wrong-footed by events in Ukraine. To catch up, the president and his advisors will have to think more strategically and candidly. And to do that, they will have to start asking and answering questions like these.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Putin's Playing Risk, While Obama's Playing Candy Land

Or: Why Russia's President Thought He Could Get Away With It

Few would have predicted even a month ago that Ukraine would escalate from a regional challenge into one of the most significant tests of the Obama presidency. As events unfold and the Obama administration begins to marshal its response, it is worth taking up the prior question: why did Putin decide he could get away with this aggression in the first place? Some other Shadow Government contributors have already started to address this. My former NSC colleague Mike Singh rightly highlights what appears to be the administration's failure of contingency planning, and below Paul Bonicelli thoughtfully explores the ideological presuppositions behind President Obama's worldview.

Lest this lapse into Monday-morning quarterbacking, I hope that looking at past mistakes will help the White House recalibrate its Russia policy going forward. And while the administration has made abundant mistakes, it bears repeating that Putin bears the full moral responsibility (read: guilt) for Russia's aggression. Those of us frustrated over Obama's foreign policy should guard against falling into a "blame America" posture. Nor should we single out American mistakes; the EU has made its share of colossal blunders on Ukraine, as Jan Techau persuasively describes here.

But the fact remains that over the last five years the Obama administration has made a series of mistakes and misjudgments that in the aggregate helped facilitate Putin's strategic assessment that he could attack Ukraine with impunity. These included:

  • Framing the "reset" in a way that implied the deterioration in U.S.-Russia relations had been America's fault. The implicit premise of the "re-set" was that the United States under the Bush administration had mishandled the Russia relationship, and now under Obama was going to try a new approach. In fact, Putin was the primary cause of the deterioration. While the Bush administration had spent years trying to build a constructive relationship with Russia, it was Putin's actions -- such as cyberattacks on Estonia, energy blackmail of Ukraine, repression of political dissent, support for Iran, and especially the 2008 invasion of Georgia -- that primarily caused the downturn.
  • Placing a losing bet on Medvedev. During Dmitri Medvedev's forgettable four years as the Russian president, the Obama administration invested considerable diplomatic capital and presidential time in building a relationship with Medvedev and trying to bolster his standing as the main authority in Russia. All the while, Putin lurked behind the presidency in his prime ministerial role and wielded the real power. The administration's bet on Medvedev represents dashed hopes and squandered resources, and a missed opportunity to deal more strongly with Putin at the time.
  • Bringing a 1970s remedy to a 21st century challenge. In a 2012 presidential campaign debate, President Obama derided Gov. Mitt Romney's criticisms of Russia with the snide line that "the 1980s are calling and they want their foreign policy back." Which is ironic, given that the Obama administration brought a 1970s approach to its own Russia policy. The aspect of the U.S.-Russia relationship that the White House devoted the most time and attention to during Obama's first term was negotiating the New START treaty. Reasonable people can disagree over whether in arms reduction terms the U.S. or Russia benefited more, but the more enduring story is that, unlike the 1970s, arms control is a secondary issue in the U.S.-Russia relationship today. The nuclear stocks of both nations are a small fraction of their heights in the Cold War. The inordinate diplomatic capital the Obama administration spent on that treaty could have been better spent on other more salient issues, such as Afghanistan, Iran's nuclear program, human rights and democracy, economic reforms, energy policy, terrorism, and Russia's troubled relationships with its border states, just to name a few.
  • Talking big and doing little on Syria. This has been pointed out abundantly elsewhere but bears repeating in this context. Obama's empty threats, that Assad "must go," that chemical weapons use is a "red line," along with the farcical Geneva process, have sent a clear message to Putin: America under Obama will not back up its words. Obama compounded this erosion of credibility when he handed Putin the initiative on Syria with the (now failing) chemical weapons deal.
  • Asking for more "flexibility." This remains one of the signature moments in Obama's Russia policy, and when it became public it became even more damaging, as it gave the impression to much of the world that Putin held the upper hand over Obama.
  • Bringing the "Candy Land" board to a game of "Risk." If geopolitics were board games, this is the cardinal fault of the Obama administration: being unrealistic about power politics. (There are many metaphors being tossed around to contrast the different approaches of Putin and Obama -- e.g. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers's line that "Putin is playing chess, and ... we are playing marbles"). Of all of the ongoing efforts to understand Obama administration foreign policy, the most implausible are those that call President Obama a "realist." Fred Kaplan is the latest to fall for this line, though in his telling it just seems to mean that Obama doesn't want the United States very involved in the world. Yet realism at its core is not about nonintervention; it is about power politics and national interests. The uber-realist Putin understands this, which is why he is playing a ruthless game of power projection in a zero-sum world. Above all else, the White House needs to understand Putin's approach, and reframe its strategy accordingly.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images