Talking Tough-ish On Eastern Europe

by Dish Staff


David Frum applauds Obama’s remarks on the Ukraine crisis from Estonia yesterday, calling them “the sharpest language any U.S. president has used toward Russia since Ronald Reagan upbraided the Evil Empire” and “the most important speech about European security … of the post-Cold War era”:

One by one, President Obama repudiated the lies Vladimir Putin has told about Ukraine: that the Ukrainians somehow provoked the invasion, that they are Nazis, that their freely elected government is somehow illegal. He rejected Russia’s claim that it has some sphere of influence in Ukraine, some right of veto over Ukrainian constitutional arrangements. And he forcefully assured Estonians—and all NATO’s new allies—that waging war on them meant waging war on the United States. “[T]he defense of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius is just as important as the defense of Berlin and Paris and London,” Obama said. “Article 5 is crystal clear. An attack on one is an attack on all. So if, in such a moment, you ever ask again, who’ll come to help, you’ll know the answer: the NATO alliance, including the armed forces of the United States of America, right here, present, now.” This is the ultimate commitment, given by the ultimate authority, in the very place where the commitment would be tested—and would have to be honored. There’s no turning back from that. Today, for the first time perhaps, Eastern Europeans have reason to believe it.

Max Fisher, who passes along the above map, interprets the speech as signaling that the US will not go to war to save Ukraine:

This does not mean that the US and Europe are indifferent to Ukraine’s plight. They have sanctioned Russia’s economy repeatedly and heavily, sending it to the precipice of recession. They have isolated Russia politically, for example by booting it from the G8. But these sanctions are about punishing Russia to deter it from future invasions, or at best an attempt to convince Putin that invading Ukraine is not worthwhile.

But Putin’s actions have demonstrated very clearly that he is willing to bear Western economic sanctions for his Ukraine invasion, and the US is not escalating further, so the invasion continues. The US is taking some tougher steps in Ukraine, but they are not very much. Obama, in his speech, called for “concrete commitments” to help Ukraine modernize its military, but it’s not clear what he meant, and even if Ukraine were armed to the teeth it would still lose any open war with Russia, which has the second-largest military in the world. So building up the Ukrainian military, while a nice symbolic gesture, will not stop Putin.

Apparently the president wasn’t clear enough for Michael Scherer:

“NATO must send an unmistakable message in support of Ukraine,” Obama said. “Ukraine needs more than words.” The rhetoric hit its marks. The message, however, was muddled. As he finished his speaking engagements, several questions remained about how he intends to deal with the multiple foreign policy crises facing his administration. He again condemned Russian incursions into Ukraine, and promised new U.S. and European help to train, modernize and strengthen the Ukrainian military. But his “unmistakable message” of support stopped short of defining or ruling out any additional U.S. military role should Russian aggression continue. While he pointedly promised to defend those countries in the region who are signatories to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Obama offered no similar assurances to Ukraine, even as he highlighted that country’s voluntary contributions to NATO military efforts. … This was not the only issue on which he left gray areas.

Drum shoots that down:

For excellent reasons, foreign policy statements nearly always include gray areas, so it would hardly be news if that were the case here. But it’s not. Obama’s statement was unusually straightforward. He said the same thing he’s been saying for months about Ukraine, and it’s really pretty clear:

  • We are committed to the defense of NATO signatories.
  • Ukraine is not part of NATO, which means we will not defend them militarily.
  • However, we will continue to seek a peaceful settlement; we will continue to provide military aid to Ukraine; and we will continue to ratchet up sanctions on Russia if they continue their aggression in eastern Ukraine.

You might not like this policy. And maybe it will change in the future. But for now it’s pretty straightforward and easy to understand. The closest Obama came to a gray area is the precise composition of the sanctions Russia faces, but obviously that depends on negotiations with European leaders. You’re not going to get a unilateral laundry list from Obama at a press conference.

But Michael Brendan Dougherty worries that even these limited commitments involve us too deeply in another crisis we can’t really fix:

If Ukrainians want to maintain control of Donetsk, they must make compromises with its population, or get on with the ugly business of subjugating or murdering them while retaining control of their own border. But the United States should not be a party to it, no matter how satisfying it is for American hawks to defeat a rebel group that symbolically represents Russian power. Indeed, it is precisely the sense that the Ukraine is a cathartic proxy war that fuels the sentiments of Russian nationalism there. The hawks will say that it will never come to hard questions about whether our sons and daughters will die for Estonia or Donetsk. We can just create deterrents with arms shipments and paper promises forever. But these are the credit-default swaps of national security, a moral hazard that jeopardizes more than our retirement plans.