Putin's Ukraine gambit leaves Obama with a hard choice

Ukraine may need American weapons to win release from Russian hegemony

Ask Americans if they believe the people of Ukraine should be free to determine their own future and about 99% would probably answer with a resounding yes. But ask them if they think America should go to war with Russia to guarantee Ukrainians that freedom and the favorable percentage would drop precipitously.

Even the most saber-rattling neoconservative foreign policy wonks are not calling for war, though their demand that President Obama send arms to Ukraine to fight Russian-backed separatists is, arguably, a big stride in that direction. They skirt the war issue by advancing the dubious argument that Russian President Vladimir Putin will back down from his aggression in eastern Ukraine if the Ukrainians are given the means to strike back hard.

Obama is receiving a lot of advice right now about how to proceed -- most of it leaning in favor of providing military aid to the government in Kiev. Typically -- and I think wisely -- he is balancing that advice against the dictum that has guided much of his foreign policy: “Don’t do stupid stuff.”

That dictum has been widely criticized, even by Hillary Rodham Clinton, as too simplistic, but it is hardly less simple-minded than the various macho credos that more often drive U.S. actions in the world, such as George W. Bush’s promise to hunt down “evildoers” and his challenge to those evildoers to “bring it on.” In old cowboy movies, tough talk and direct action always seemed to work out well. In the real world -- with Iraq as a prime example -- even high-minded intentions can lead to very bad results. Avoiding stupid stuff is not such a bad place to start designing a foreign policy. 

I’ve been to Ukraine and, when I think of the young people I met there who simply want to live lives as free and full of possibility as their counterparts in Europe and North America, it is easy to make a case for the United States to go beyond the stiff economic sanctions now in place and do more to counter Russian aggression. Putin is a cynical authoritarian who rules over a kleptocracy that has snuffed out the flame of democracy and free expression that flickered briefly after the fall of the Soviet Union. When the people of Ukraine made their move to get out from under Russia’s gloomy shadow, Putin first stole Crimea and then sent secret agents, soldiers and heavy weapons to foment rebellion in the eastern half of Ukraine. 

Given all that, the United States would be justified in trying to take him down a notch or two. Supplying more sophisticated weapons to Ukraine would seem like the most direct way to do that. As I noted, those who propose this step insist that such a show of American resolve would cause Putin to finally back down and reach a settlement that would give Ukraine the autonomy it desires and deserves. 

That is certainly a rosy scenario, but does anyone honestly believe in it? It is not far more likely that Putin would seize on the introduction of American weapons as justification for even more aggressive action? He has already sold the lie that the West is responsible for all the trouble in Ukraine; U.S. military aid would give him the proof he needs to back his lie. 

The proposed schedule for delivery of weapons to Ukraine stretches into 2016. In the meantime, Putin would feel free to be even more overt in his aid to the pro-Russian rebels. As in Crimea, Russian troops might be brought into the fight in numbers too large for the Ukrainians to resist.

All of this would boost Putin’s already high popularity in his own country and distract Russian citizens from the harsh effects of Western sanctions. In the eyes of many, if not most, Russians, Ukraine is not foreign soil. It is not Poland or Hungary, it is a sister land that is considered the birthplace of Russia itself. Deeper American involvement would spark a rise in Russian nationalism and Putin would be empowered.

Are Americans ready to deal with that far more likely scenario? Just how far will we go to defend Ukraine? The answer may be that we should go a very long way or it may be that we should accept the limits of our influence in a part of the world in which Russia has long-standing ties and interests. Only those who view the world in simplistic terms believe that this is an easy choice.

And that is why it is not a sign of weakness for Obama to pause and ponder the consequences. That’s not weak; it’s smart.

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