US plan for Crimea crisis still a mystery

Washington has offered threats and sanctions to pressure Russia, but what kind of compromise is it pushing for?

An armed man, believed to be a Russian serviceman, in an armored military vehicle on Tuesday near Simferopol in Crimea.
Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters

Ukraine’s interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk will fly to Washington to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama on Wednesday to discuss “how to find a peaceful resolution to Russia’s ongoing military intervention in Crimea,” the White House announced over the weekend, a sign that the United States intends to advance its patronage of the new, West-facing government in Kiev, which Russia has decried as illegitimate.

As for what that elusive peaceful resolution could entail, the White House — along with the entirety of the U.S. diplomatic apparatus — has given little away. The U.S. insists on a diplomatic solution to Russia’s occupation of Crimea, an autonomous, mostly ethnic-Russian peninsula that belongs to Ukraine, but it has revealed very little about what shape an acceptable compromise might take.

“So far, the U.S. rhetoric has been all about condemning Russia’s actions and expressing support for the government in Ukraine, and we haven’t given much indication about what we regard as an acceptable settlement, other than reversal of everything that’s happened since [deposed President Viktor] Yanukovich fled,” said Stephen Walt, a professor of international relations at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “And that isn't likely.”

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Since Kremlin ally Yanukovich was ousted after months of pro-European demonstrations and Russian troops took over Crimea in apparent retaliation, the U.S. has led the charge against Russian President Vladimir Putin, firmly positioning itself behind the new leaders in Kiev. Last week, Obama signed an executive order imposing sanctions and travel restrictions on Russians deemed to be threatening the sovereignty of Ukraine and offered $1 billion in aid to Ukraine’s new government. In a symbolic gesture that seemed to hint at future patronage, Secretary of State John Kerry even flew Ukraine’s interim Foreign Minister Andrii Deshchytsia to Paris for talks last week on his own plane.

“What we’ve seen is the president mobilizing the international community in support of Ukraine to isolate Russia for its actions in Ukraine and to reassure our allies and partners,” said Tony Blinken, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, when he announced this week’s meeting with Yatsenyuk in an interview with NBC on Sunday.

U.S., Bulgarian and Romanian naval forces also held a joint exercise in the Black Sea on Wednesday just across the water from the Crimean peninsula. The U.S. says the naval exercises were planned before the crisis in Ukraine.

But if these actions were meant to pressure Russia to back down, they have not been successful. Ukrainian security forces say the number of Russian troops in Crimea doubled to as many as 30,000 over the weekend, as Russia’s parliament announced it would facilitate Crimea’s secession to Russia, and many now assume the strategic Black Sea peninsula is all but lost for Ukraine. 

For all the threats and sanctions from the U.S., wrote Leslie Gelb, a former government official and a president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, the U.S. has failed to convince Putin that there is any real imperative for him to back down. “As it stands today, the Russians may feel that they can get away with their power grab,” he wrote in an op-ed for The Daily Beast. “Putin surely remembers how little [George W.] Bush did to punish Moscow for its meddling in Georgia in 2008 or for its practical annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Perhaps he now reckons that once again there will be no serious consequences for his territorial lust.”

Yatsenyuk is surely hoping for more staunch support from the U.S. than it offered its ally Georgia in 2008. Kiev has nowhere else to turn. Europe, for its part, has offered a massive $15 billion aid package to the Kiev government, but it has been unwilling to impose more than symbolic slaps on the wrist against Russia, which supplies 30 percent of the continent’s natural gas and is otherwise an important trading partner.

While most analysts agree the current U.S. line is not working, there is little consensus on what to do next. A growing chorus has called for the U.S. to compound pressure on Russia or risk losing credibility that its threats can be backed by action. “If the president wants to avoid cementing the image of the United States as a weakened superpower, he needs to push back [in Ukraine],” said Doyle McManus in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times. “To paraphrase his former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, this is a crisis that should not go to waste.”

Others, including Gelb and Walt, argue that that brand of rhetoric will only exacerbate tensions surrounding Crimea. They would advise Obama to shepherd Yatsenyuk toward a power-sharing agreement, such as was dictated under the short-lived Feb. 21 deal, which Yanukovich signed just hours before fleeing Kiev. Though Russia harbors no love for Yanukovich, viewing him as weak and ineffective, a power-sharing agreement would figure as that mutually unsatisfying off-ramp that Kerry has often referred to that would allow Russia to back down in Crimea and still save face. Of course, sharing power with Yanukovich seems entirely unacceptable to Yatsenyuk and the activists who risked their lives in Kiev’s central square to depose him.

In an op-ed last week, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger indicated that a power-sharing arrangement was conceivable if the U.S. pulls the right levers in Kiev, but he underlined that reconciliation between Ukraine’s pro-Russian and West-facing factions was a job for the country’s new leaders rather than the competing foreign powers that have been pulling Ukraine apart. “That [new] nation leaves no doubt about its fierce independence and cooperates with the West in most fields but carefully avoids institutional hostility toward Russia,” Kissinger wrote, terming his solution a “balanced dissatisfaction.”

Gelb and Walt agreed with Kissinger that the foremost U.S. concern must be to ensure Ukraine’s neutrality in this renewed Cold War–style standoff. Calls for Ukraine to join NATO must cease, for example, and the U.S. must otherwise tread lightly while it serves as Ukraine’s principal backer, lest Russia suspect further encroachment. “The best the U.S. can hope for Ukraine is that it becomes a neutral buffer state, not a part of Russia’s sphere of influence but not part of ours either,” said Walt.

But he cautioned that Wednesday’s meeting might already be a misstep in that direction. “Inviting Yatsenyuk to Washington is not exactly the way to de-escalate this if you’re trying to convince Moscow that you don’t want to incorporate Ukraine into the Western sphere of influence.”

Besides, there may be subtler methods for incorporating Ukraine into the West that do not risk frigid wars of escalating rhetoric and tense stalemate. A perpetual crisis over Ukraine, after all, would “endanger essential Russian cooperation on Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, arms control and on increasingly tricky relations with China,” said Gelb.

The past week has shown that the U.S.’s range of financial weaponry, including aid for Kiev (which undercuts a potential bailout offer from Russia) and sanctions against Moscow, has failed to pierce the Kremlin’s resolve. “Ultimately, no sum of money will be sufficient to firmly anchor Ukraine in either the Eastern or the Western camp,” wrote Rebecca Friedman and Elizabeth Holland for The Christian Science Monitor.

“Enabling the country to regain its political and economic footing, with Brussels and Washington conspicuously leveraging carrots rather than sticks to set Ukraine on a course of true democratization, is the best way to welcome a stable Ukraine into the West.” After all, Friedman and Holland point out, political reform is precisely what Ukraine’s activists have called for from the beginning.

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