Ukraine Drama Brings Out Leading Actors’ True Colors

Ukraine Drama Brings Out Leading Actors’ True Colors

The world’s response to Ukraine’s 2014 revolution is a useful snapshot of the dominant international trends of our time — including the erosion of the vigor of the West and the determination of our adversaries to secure advantage amidst transatlantic tepidness. Here is a top five list of how key players’ responses to the crisis illuminate a dangerous lack of Western fortitude at a time of historic opportunity.

1) President Obama

A piece in Tuesday’s New York Times by Peter Baker contrasts George W. Bush’s embrace of the Orange Revolution in 2004 with President Obama’s "clinical detachment" a decade later. "Rather than an opportunity to spread freedom in a part of the world long plagued by corruption and oppression, Mr. Obama sees Ukraine’s crisis as a problem to be managed," writes Baker. The President is more "wary" of the "instability" it could pose than willing to lean forward to secure the free and independent Ukraine that has been a goal of every American president since 1991. Yet as in Syria, Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, East Asia, and elsewhere, U.S. disengagement is producing exactly the instability we fear.

2) Susan Rice

In the Washington Post this week, Richard Cohen laments "Susan Rice and the retreat of American power." On Sunday morning TV, the national security advisor offered nothing more than "airy but prudent generalization[s]" about one of the more consequential events in wider Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Cohen argues that Ukraine, like Syria, is a metaphor for the broader lack of purpose of American policy under Rice and Obama. "An increasingly messy world is looking for guidance. But not only does the United States refuse to be its policeman, it won’t even be its hall monitor."

3) The European Union

Europe’s reluctance to get in the arena in Ukraine led to this colorful judgment by a leading U.S. diplomat. She might also have noted that Ukraine is a lot closer to Europe than it is to the United States. Individual European leaders like Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski and Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt have long appreciated the stakes in Ukraine and pushed Europe hard to shape the country’s future trajectory. But in asking "Has the West Already Lost Ukraine?" only days after former President Yanukovych’s downfall, Polish intellectual Slawomir Sierakowski argues that the European Union is more "softy power" than "soft power" and must have a policy more robust than simply "wait[ing] for pro-Western forces to emerge."

4) Congressional confirmation politics

Leaders like Senator John McCain are acting presidential in their outreach to Ukrainian leaders, warnings against Russian military interference, and support for a democratic outcome in Kiev. At the same time, executive branch nominees who should be leading the administration’s response, including the nominee for Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski, are stuck in confirmation limbo. As a bipartisan group of experts and former officials wrote to the Senate Majority Leader in December, "The extended vacancy…risks casting doubt on the United States’ commitment and capacity to promote human rights and democratic values around the world. The absence of senior leaders on human rights inside the U.S. government handicaps our diplomacy in crucial arenas like …Ukraine." Malinowski was nominated last summer, sailed through his confirmation hearing, and was unanimously voted out of committee. It is time to confirm him – and put him to work on Ukraine (and Syria).

5) The "appease Russia" crowd

There are good reasons to be careful not to rush NATO forces into Ukraine or set up American bases there. But strategic prudence need not mean bending to the will of an authoritarian regime in Moscow whose meddling has done so much to prevent Ukraine from embracing its European vocation. Typical is the argument of former British ambassador to Russia Tony Brenton, who in the Financial Times belittles those warning of the "dark fantasy" of a Russian military incursion into Ukraine. He even absolves Moscow of responsibility for its brazen invasion of Georgia in 2008 — which he likens, extraordinarily, to Britain’s war to recapture control of the Falkland Islands from the Argentine junta in 1982. Britain before has been faced with charming but ruthless dictators determined to secure geopolitical objectives at any cost. But surely the "peace in our time" school of diplomacy should have gone out of fashion by now.