In 1994 Ukraine was a nuclear power. Due to the fall of the Soviet Union the country had over 1,800 nuclear weapons. Both the US and Russia sought to destroy these nukes. The result was the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. This treaty made Ukraine send the last of their nuclear arsenal to Russia for destruction in 1996 and in return the West offered Ukraine strong security assurances. Well, so much for those assurances.
I doubt few of you need a full rundown on what has transpired recently in Ukraine. It has been splattered all over the news. Russia now occupies the Crimea. More worrisome is the number of troops it has stationed on Ukraine’s Eastern border. You’d be hard-pressed to find a security analyst who says this is a good thing.
Most recently, in several Eastern border towns, Russian militia groups have popped up to take over government buildings. Ukraine has responded in force and sent in anti-insurgency forces. The result has been continuous gun battles occurring in Eastern border towns sympathetic to Russia.
America’s foreign policy under Obama has been anything but consistent. Obama was for Afghanistan in 2008 and against Iraq and yet he supported a major pullout of troops in Afghanistan against his generals recommendations. He also pulled troops out of Iraq. Meanwhile, he helped depose Muammar Gaddafi in Libya (at Europe’s request). He also called for Hosni Mubarak in Egypt to step down when riots broke out and was literally dragged into condemning the actions of his Muslim predecessor (he was worse than Mubarak). He barely uttered a word during the Arab Spring of 2009 and has done little to investigate Benghazi (something to hide perhaps).
Ironically, perhaps the only consistent foreign policy decision Obama has made so far is to keep the US out of Ukraine. The public does not want to be involved, Congress does not want to be involved and Russia and China certainly do not want us to be involved. If this was the foreign policy era of George W. Bush we might go in or at least arm Ukrainian forces but we now have Obama as President.
Obama, like Clinton, makes his decisions based on the polls. He always has. Even when Obamacare was passing with opposition from the public the base loved it. Libya and Egypt were framed in such a way to garner public support. The pullouts in Iraq and Afghanistan remain widely popular.
But Ukraine is something vastly different. It requires the US to stand up to a divided United Nations Security Council, China and most importantly Russia. Obama’s administration has put a premium on strengthening diplomatic ties with Russia in the hopes of the country working to end the violence in Syria and stall or stop Iran’s nuclear program.
These efforts seem to have amounted to little. Putin has played America like a fiddle with Syria, Iran and now Ukraine. In Syria, Russian efforts to promote diplomacy gained them accolades in the UN. On Iran, Russia has looked like a hero for helping forge a deal between the West and Iran on stopping enrichment until the West can inspect their facilities. In Ukraine, particularly the Crimean, Putin’s takeover of the region now looks legitimate as a solid majority of the region’s public voted to join Russia in a recent referendum. In Eastern Ukrainian border towns the same phenomena could occur again.
With the public firmly set against action and only Senator John McCain (R-AZ) making waves in Congress, Ukraine seems likely to receive little support from the West or the US. NATO does not want to confront Russia for fear of losing access to Russia’s needed natural gas supply. Obama would have to confront Putin while facing opposition from his own public and Congress. Even sending aid to Ukraine faces an uphill climb in Congress leaving Ukraine’s strained forces underfunded and under-armed.
Now, Russia has not invaded Ukraine proper and if they did the American public might take more notice. Taking a small region is one thing but invading a whole, sovereign nation is something else entirely. Unfortunately, Obama’s administration seems unwilling to buck public or world opinion when it comes to foreign policy and as a result Putin has a free reign to slowly cobble back together the Russian Empire of old. Putin also is cagey enough not to invade an entire country without strong provocation.
More broadly, the fact the US and the West would buck former defense agreements when it suits their domestic/political interests is a bad sign for ending nuclear proliferation, Asian security agreements and Middle Eastern relations. All rely somewhat on the West pledging to act in defense of their allies. If Ukraine is any example, I think many countries would feel justified in telling the West to stick it when it comes to agreements based on mutual security.