Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Obama's No-Good-Very-Bad Week

As the crisis in Ukraine enters its fifth month since ousted President Viktor Yanukovych turned down an EU association deal in November, Russian troops have left their bases in Crimea and occupied the peninsula. Russian President Vladimir Putin claims the move is essential to protect ethnic Russians, who are allegedly at risk from militant nationalist, anti-semitic, and otherwise violent groups. While this claim is shaky at best, given Crimea’s strategic importance to Russia (whose Black Sea fleet is stationed at Sevastopal), it is not altogether shocking that Russia would move to secure the region in the face of growing instability in Ukraine.

What remains less clear are the options now open to US President Barack Obama in responding to the crisis. Wishy-washy and inexact condemnations and threats have left much to be desired, and many are already claiming that foreign policy is at an all-time low in Obama’s second term. One side of the aisle points out his weakness, while the other calls attention to the irony of this rhetoric. Yet few of these voices offer any tangible actions the President could take to diffuse the crisis, if not end it altogether. The following are some of the options the Obama administration has when it comes to confronting Russia on its recent incursion.

Military Options

Russia is party to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which specifies that it (as well as the US and UK) cannot “threaten or use force against the territorial integrity…of Ukraine.” While no world power shies from breaking international law (ahem, Iraq 2003, ahem drones right-friggin'-now), the agreement does provide an avenue for the UK and US to intervene militarily and legally in the crisis if Russia advances farther into Ukraine.

After over a decade with boots on the ground in the Middle East, however, Americans are not in the mood for another war. This war weariness has constrained Obama’s foreign policy from the beginning of his presidency, not least because he ran on a platform of being a peace-seeking president. While this somewhat precludes the use of overt military measures to respond to Russia’s invasion of Crimea, Obama and his European allies still have a few cards left on the military table that he could choose to play.

Some analysts have called for an arms embargo on Russia that would derail a planned French contract for two Mistral-class ships to Russia, an idea that was apparently struck from the text of French threats of visa bans and asset freezes. The EU as a whole appears wary of taking too strong a tack against Russia, as it has much more to lose if an armed conflict begins on its doorstep.

Another option open to the President is increasing NATO’s presence and participation as proposed by retired Admiral James Stavridis. Stavridis recommends actions short of armed aggression including: increasing intelligence-gathering, information-sharing with the Ukrainian government and armed forces, providing advice and advisors, developing contingency plans in case of a full-scale invasion, raising the alert level at NATO crisis centers, heightening preparations for a possible cyberattack on Ukraine (Russia launched such an attack on Georgia in 2008), and sending NATO forces into the Black Sea. All of these actions carry a degree of risk that the crisis will simply continue to escalate; then again, as Stavridis points out, so does doing nothing.

Economic Options

The most likely response now on the table is the threat of economic sanctions against Russia from the US and hopefully its EU partners. This would include freezing the assets of Russian citizens and businesses, a move that would surely hurt Russia’s powerful oligarchs. Yet the Russian government has publicly brushed off the threat, and in turn has said that sanctions would cause it to respond by halting repayments of loans to the US and sales of gas to Europe, which gets about 30% of its natural gas supplies from Russia.

The threat of gas cut-offs is certainly the overriding concern for many European countries that still recall the 2005-2006 gas crisis when Russian gas giant Gazprom turned off Ukraine’s supply, which hit the rest of Europe hard. At the time, a quarter of Europe’s gas came from Russia, and 80% of the gas flowed through a Ukrainian pipeline. After the cut-off took effect, EU countries were forced to cope with severely limited heating throughout the winter. As an Italian official recently stated, “What sanctions can you place on a country that can cut off your gas?”

Yet this time around, it is not clear that a gas cut-off would achieve nearly the same affect. EU countries, learning the lessons of 2006, have sought to diversify their energy supplies and now only receive 15% of gas through Ukrainian pipelines. Additionally, gas consumption itself is at “its lowest level since 1999,” and Gazprom faces additional competitors for the market, especially the booming US natural gas trade. Thus a shutdown would not cripple Europe as it did in 2006, and in fact might hurt Gazprom (and thus Russia) even more. Many of the current fears of EU policymakers are symptoms of the last crisis. Should sanctions take effect and the gas ceases to flow, the US could step in to help alleviate the energy needs of its allies and allow itself the necessary interval for sanctions to take effect.

Another economic option that has received less attention is convincing the Saudis to turn their oil taps all the way up, flooding the market with crude and significantly lowering the price of oil. Russia’s economy is dependent on the price of oil and natural gas remaining high. This is an economic option of last recourse for the President, since it would be difficult to cajole Saudi Arabia to sacrifice their own profits for a geostrategic conflict thousands of miles away.

Diplomatic Options

Diplomatic options will do little to silence those who are dismayed at Pres. Obama’s foreign policy “weakness”; they may, however, offer the international community a more peaceful route out of this crisis, as well as help to set the stage for how the world deals with the next one. To be sure, diplomacy is often the least popular option because good diplomacy produces no clear winners and losers, only compromises. Yet successfully applied, it could keep the US out of another war that could prove its undoing as a global power.

Talking tough: Obama poses for a photo op while speaking to Putin.
Courtesy Pete Souza, White House.
Diplomatic pressure tactics are already on the table in both the US and the EU. Visa bans and restrictions on Russians help to turn the pressure up on Putin. Others have called for the enlargement of the “Magnitsky group” of Russians not allowed to enter the US, as well as investigations into the finances of Putin’s close associates. Unfortunately, all of these options would take months, if not years, to elicit reactions if no immediate upheaval occurred in Russia’s elite. Eliciting upheaval would therefore be the primary task for the Obama administration.

Diplomatic solutions, on the other hand, could resolve the crisis in the short-term. They will be the least palatable to the US, Russia, and the EU, simply because any good compromise leaves every party feeling like it got screwed. The most pressing issue for Russia is its bases in Crimea. These bases house its warm-water Black Sea fleet and provide it with immediate access to the Mediterranean and the Levant. Its primary interest is controlling these bases, and if an agreement could be reached that protects Russian control while returning Russian troops to their bases, that would be a first step towards a short-term diplomatic resolution.

Future Solutions

In the face of the most recent crisis, the Obama administration has compounded the foreign policy errors of its second term. It appears now that the administration has been more comfortable reading from a policy script than actually enacting policy. It was easy for Obama to declare the march of democracy in the Middle East in Cairo in 2009 to a cheering crowd; it has proved much more difficult to manage democracy's oft-destructive wave that broke in the region in 2011. It was easy for the administration to support the aspirations of Ukrainians for new leadership; it has proved much harder to find new leadership in the face of Russian aggression and Ukrainian fragmentation.

One solution for the next crisis – be assured, there will be one – would be to put in place better contingency planning mechanisms, especially in the National Security Council. The ad hoc and bumbling nature of Obama’s foreign policy in the face of crises seems due to equal parts surprise and lack of preparation. Yet as former NSC employee Michael Singh points out, the crises of the last year have hardly come as complete surprises. More often than not, warning signs and red flags have popped up months in advance of crises reaching boiling points. If contingency plans for unrest in the Eastern Europe had been better, for instance, Obama might not seem so ham-handed in responding once a crisis did occur. Better planning at the executive level for disaster both at home and abroad would go far to salvage the president’s waning political star.

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