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Five Questions Left Hanging in Ukraine

Five Questions Left Hanging in Ukraine

Despite an avalanche of commentary, I think there are still a few things left to be said — or, more to the point, left to be asked. Here is my list of five:

What will be Russia’s countermoves elsewhere on the chessboard? The commentary has rightly focused on the immediate A-B-C moves: (a) what Russia has done in Crimea, (b) what the West should do in response to that, (c) what Russia would do in Crimea and Ukraine after the West has acted. Less attention has been paid to the things we will all be talking about once those preliminary moves have taken place: how Putin will seek to impose costs on the West for the sanctions and other diplomatic steps we take in move "b." Germany appears to be quite concerned about this, though much of that concern may just be about lost business opportunities. Of greater importance will be the cost-imposing strategies available to Putin elsewhere on the geopolitical chess board, especially Syria, Iran, and perhaps even Afghanistan. The cumulative effect of five years of Obama’s policies has been to give Russia something of a whip hand in those areas. We should expect him to wield that lash, though probably more deftly than he has done in Crimea. Russian counter-counter-moves demand a counter of their own, and so the game of diplomacy plays out. President Obama should not fall for the fallacy that so often marks the prescriptions of doves — it is quite possible the costs Russia could impose elsewhere will be less if the United States leads vigorously than if the United States continues to be feckless. But he should be wary of the opposite error of failing to anticipate those costs and failing to develop strategies to mitigate them.

Is Obama prepared to turn the crisis into an opportunity? The most obvious place for Russian cost-imposing responses also happens to be the place where Obama’s existing strategy has most obviously failed: Syria. Put another way, Putin is well-placed to throw sand in the gears of a policy train that has already ground to a standstill. So far, President Obama has shown no willingness to contemplate bold alternatives in Syria and, absent the events in Ukraine, it is possible that his preferred course of action would be to double down on the bets he already made — bets that required him to keep Russia on side. Putin’s misadventure could be seen as liberating Obama from the Sisyphean task of rolling his extant Syria policy back up the hill one more time. Will Obama seize this opportunity to chart a more strategic set of policies in the Middle East and elsewhere?

Will our allies and partners trust President Obama to lead given his dismal record in Syria last September? Consider the unfortunate timing of President Obama’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, given on the eve of Putin’s surprise move. That interview, given to bolster the diplomatic pressure on Prime Minister Netanyahu to make concessions to prop up the faltering Israel-Palestine peace process, now provides a poignant reminder of how poorly the administration handled the confrontation with Syria over its violation of Obama’s "red line" on chemical weapons. Worse, it demonstrates that the president is still not willing to evaluate candidly what went wrong. As Elliott Abrams has pointed out, Obama’s comments reveal a remarkable self-assessment, one that is very hard to square with the actual facts. Of greatest relevance to the current crisis, Obama narrates the Syrian crisis thus: (i) Obama issues tough threat, (ii) Syria and Russia back down in the face of this credible threat, and (iii) Syria disposes of its chemical weapons. Of course, what actually happened was very different: (i) Obama issued a threat, (ii) Obama retreated from that threat and handed Congress a veto over the wielding of that threat, (iii) on the eve of the likely congressional veto of that threat, and at the moment of maximum Obama weakness, Russia and Syria offered Obama a deal that would yoke Obama to the Assad regime in exchange for some concessions from Syria, (iv) Obama accepts the Syrian deal. Syria paid a price in acknowledging its chemical arsenal and pruning that arsenal slightly, though their behavior since shows that they paid far less of a price than the Obama administration is willing to admit; in exchange, Syria bought the advantage over the West in subsequent negotiations. Reasonable people can debate whether this was a better deal than what would have happened after airstrikes. And reasonable people can concede that Obama’s initial threat set this in motion. But it is unreasonable to pretend that Syria and Russia folded in the face of an imminent attack when, in fact, they seized the initiative to force a deal on an administration desperate to be rescued from the diplomatic/political impasse of Obama’s own making. If Obama will not candidly acknowledge what happened last fall, how can our partners trust him to lead now?

Are we prepared to understand that the justice dimensions of this crisis are more complex than they appear to be at first glance? Make no mistake about it: Putin’s moves have been a crime, a gross violation of international norms. More than that, they were a blunder, for Putin had available myriad less-dicey tools with which to impose his will on a post-Yanukovych Ukraine; whatever short-term benefit he might gain, Putin is risking far greater long-term downsides by going the route he has. But evil and stupid do not mean unintelligible — and understanding involves more than merely calculating Russian conceptions of power and interest. Ironically, at stake this time was what was also at stake in the 19th-century Crimean War: what political scientist David Welch has called the "justice motive," the "drive to correct a perceived discrepancy between entitlements and benefits." This justice motive was an important factor in explaining what otherwise might look like merely the crass land-grab of an imperial power (what Secretary Kerry dismissed as "19th century behavior"). Tsar Nicholas I launched the Crimean War to redress what he perceived to be an unjustified disregard of the prerogatives of the Orthodox Church within the Ottoman Empire, particularly the Holy Land. Putin talks about the unfolding crisis in Ukraine in similar justice terms, lashing out at the West for disregarding the electoral process seeking to remove the elected government through unlawful means. No one should credit Putin with noble aims anymore than they would credit Tsar Nicholas with properly understanding the Church’s rightful role. Moreover, there is a justice motive that explains the Ukrainian opposition’s behavior, and their motive is far more compelling than Putin’s. But it is not more compelling to Putin. As David Brooks has argued, it is folly to ignore the psychological forces at work in the crisis.

What did Obama and Putin talk about for 90 minutes? A friend of mine drew my attention to the odd disconnect between the length of the call (90 minutes) and the thinness of the read-out of the call. Anyone with experience in these matters could tell you that public read-outs always leave out interesting bits and that leader-to-leader conversations can be stilted, especially during crises like this one. Even so, 90 minutes is far more time than is necessary to cover the acknowledged agenda and talking points. Perhaps the answer is not very interesting: Maybe the time was wasted in lengthy historical digressions, the kind of clock-burning monologues communist apparatchiks specialized back in the day. Or perhaps the answer is more interesting. We won’t know until reporters ask.

At almost every turn, the Obama administration has been wrong-footed by events in Ukraine. To catch up, the president and his advisors will have to think more strategically and candidly. And to do that, they will have to start asking and answering questions like these.