What many are calling a standoff in Crimea is anything but. Russian President Vladimir Putin is on a roll. He is building up Russian forces on the Crimean peninsula. He has thumbed his nose at the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe), which has been thwarted in its attempt to send observers into Crimea, and expelled the UN envoy. He has advanced the date for a referendum on Crimea’s future to March 16. And he has secured a vote in the Russian Duma which would welcome Crimea back into the Russian fold.
Meanwhile, the West dithers and fumbles the ball. Stout rhetoric but little action. Instead of delivering a strong, clear and unambiguous message to Putin that he is risking everything in his relations with the West, the Alliance has been in disarray, sending a series of mixed and confusing messages about its intentions and interests in this crisis.
Diplomacy is going nowhere because there is no personal chemistry between Putin and President Barack Obama and even less respect. In spite of a flurry of ‘phone calls,’ they seem to be talking past each other.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has the best relationship with Putin of any Western leader, but it is not clear whether she wants to play the role of interlocutor. Narrow economic interests prevail in Berlin.
While Western leaders flail with empty threats, Putin exploits the advantage he seized on the ground — thus far without violence, which implicitly helps him. The referendum is a squalid sideshow but one that enhances his popularity at home.
Western measures such as visa bans and freezing the assets of those complicit in Crimea’s rupture from Ukraine are a mere tap on the wrist. Ukraine’s new leaders worry openly that the West is going to let the Crimea and perhaps even eastern Ukraine fall into Russia’s hands. Those trying to muster a semblance of governance in Kiev are struggling mightily but the challenge is Herculean, especially with the Russian bear holding most of the leverage.
Germany has balked on developing a package of tough economic and financial sanctions and on the threat to expel Russia from the G8. Even the normally stalwart British are hesitant about financial sanctions because they would hurt the City of London, where Russian oligarchs and energy companies have stashed much of their cash.
Although the European Union has offered to provide Ukraine with a $15 billion aid package, most of that money would end up in Russian hands to pay for outstanding loans and to buy Russian gas (Ukraine depends on Russia for 60 per cent of its natural gas imports).
The Obama administration has gone into overdrive in “consultations” with its NATO allies as a substitute for real action. The sad spectacle of a single American warship going on patrol in the Black Sea — on a mission that apparently been planned long before this crisis began — says it all: America is standing down, not standing up. As some have pointed out, Obama adheres to a ‘fantasy foreign policy’ — seeing the world as he would like it to be rather than as it is.
Apart from Putin’s muscle, we are seeing an enfeebled America — a foreign policy without rigour and a fiscal paralysis that is weakening its military — and a befuddled EU. Since the West has ruled out even hypothetically any military option, Putin is banking on the fact that the lack of clear leadership from the ‘after you Alphonse’ brigade will limit Western consensus and capacities for action.
America could and should use its economic options at least to thwart Russia’s oligarchs and contain Moscow’s threat of retaliation on energy with actions that would promise credible, alternative supplies. More generally, the West needs to step up to the plate in Ukraine with aid and real security guarantees. Under the Partnership for Peace agreement with NATO, Ukraine is within its rights to ask for NATO’s help. Similarly tangible reassurances are needed by Poland, the Czech Republic and the Baltic states — which undoubtedly observe the events next door with increasing trepidation.
With the deepening crisis in Crimea, a more constructive spirit appears to have emerged in Ottawa, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Liberal MP Chrystia Freeland, who visited Ukraine this past week, also showed grace and good judgment by publicly expressing her support for the prime minister’s policies. There are, after all, principles at stake about the manner in which basic concepts of international law and national sovereignty are being violated.
Alas, one cannot say the same about the wailing Greek chorus of former Canadian diplomats who continue to criticize the government, most recently urging that it consult with, instead of reprimand, Russian ambassador Georgy Mamedov — who only days ago was denying that Russia would invade Ukraine. As an unreconstructed apparatchik from Soviet days, the wily Mamedov, along with the equally wily Foreign Minister Lavrov, simply parrots the tune of their KGB-trained master in Moscow.
While Ottawa speaks with one voice on Ukraine, the same cannot be said about Washington. Republicans and even some Democrats have been openly critical of the president, as (surprisingly) has been the usually liberal Washington Post.
Differences on foreign policy no longer stop at the water’s edge. In what many are calling Obama’s greatest foreign policy crisis, the president is seen at home as dithering with no sense of strategy and little inclination to act. Firm statements are not sufficient and simply risk further embarrassment.
If, as seems certain, Putin wins the referendum handily in Crimea, the West needs to bolster firmly Ukraine’s desire for closer relations. If that were to happen, Putin would ultimately be the big loser. But it will take more than fine rhetoric to reach that obvious, strategic objective.