Opinion

Obama's Hands-Off Approach Just Gives More Power to Russia

Last week, the Ukrainian parliament voted to outlaw its own chances of NATO membership, now and forevermore. It was yet another step in President Obama’s quiet retreat from Eastern Europe, and Russia’s re-assertion of power in the region. The west’s feeble attempts at resistance were poignantly dramatized by April’s egg-and-smoke bomb fight which broke out in Ukraine’s parliament.

The fight was a decidedly Second World affair, featuring wasteful hurling of foodstuffs but with a menu limited to beets and eggs.  It was also one-sided. Only Ukraine’s pro-Western opposition, recently ousted from office, arrived armed with eggs. Their targets: those seeking to ratify a 25-year extension of Russia’s Soviet-era naval base in southern Ukraine, less than a week after it was signed.

The renewal was controversial. Could Ukraine actually tell its overbearing  neighbor to pack up the warships and go home? Would Moscow insist on hanging on?

Even while defending themselves with umbrellas, the pro-Russian parliamentarians knew they would be victorious. Despite the dust-up, the agreement was signed. No one expected the US to oppose a power play by the Russian-backed government, and it did not. Sadly, even if it holds another free election, Ukraine will not soon again have the same freedom it did when its democrats came to power in 2005.

The result was thus anticlimactic. After all, Moscow had already called the West’s bluff -- in the Russia-Georgia war of 2008 -- when it steamrolled another westernizing NATO aspirant.  

The Georgia war did not seem consequential at the time. In the Official History, crackpot Georgian leader Michael Saakashvili had rashly provoked the Russians, igniting a brief war in which his country was humiliated. (It didn’t help that the tracksuit-wearing Saakashvili often behaved with all the self-control of a "Grand Theft Auto" avatar.) 

However, at the end of the day, this poor man’s Yeltsin was in fact the leader of Georgia. Moreover, ever since the Georgian pro-democracy movement overthrew its resident strongman in 2003, Georgia and America had been close. Georgia sent 2,000 troops to Iraq, and more to Afghanistan. Tbilisi hosted chummy Presidential visits, and got US support to join NATO. In the eyes of Saakashvili and most of the world, Georgia and the US were buddies.

Unfortunately, when the 2008 war broke out, Vladimir Putin immediately flew home from the Beijing Olympics while President Bush stayed for the swimming. Nothing could have more vividly signaled the world that Russia was free to start the rollback of westernization in the communist world. And so, Russia surges forward.

Autocratic Russia has never liked stasis. Its borders have always been in motion, expanding or contracting, depending on the resistance it meets.  Most of this movement has no real impact on Russia’s relations with the outside world. If the West draws back, Russia pushes forward; but Russia will not view the Outside warmly in response, nor will it stop pushing on its new borders.  Russia will not view such abdication as a concession, but as a right.  

If I were the Poles, I’d be worried. The line between liberal West and autocratic East is, with U.S. diplomatic acquiescence, creeping back across Europe, darkening the old Russian vassals one at a time.  There’s not even much need for force.

In part, the U.S. accedes because it desperately wants Kremlin support for UN sanctions on Iran. Fair enough. But in exchange, Russia gets – well, frankly, whatever Russia wants. It’s a smorgasbord of concession: slack on human rights, troops in Georgia, ships in Ukraine, cyber attacks on the Baltic States, no ground-based missile defenses in Poland or the Czech Republic, and a (more) friendly government in Kyrgyzstan.

President Obama has taken America’s hands-off policy during the Georgia war and thrown it into overdrive. It is no surprise that he now wants to increase nuclear cooperation with the Kremlin, longtime supporter of Iran’s nuclear programs. He is keeping his eye on the ball.

Yet there is no ball. If you’re a reasonably sober Russia, the threat of a nuclear-capable Iran is not threat enough to make you kill the goose that’s laying golden eggs. If you win every dispute with the U.S. because of Iran’s nuclear program, you’d be mad to end that program. Is a nuclear-capable Iran a threat to the Kremlin? Absolutely. Is it as much of a threat to the regime as a vibrant NATO and an active pro-democracy movement in Russia? I doubt it.

And it seems very unlikely that the Eastern Europeans believe it either. They have been staring into the Russian maw for hundreds of years, waiting for deliverance. They are romantics, yes, and deliverance is romantic. But they are also realists. And at this point, eggs, smoke bombs and ultimate submission is their reality.

 Andrew Lewis Taylor was foreign affairs advisor to two United States Senators. He can be reached at AndrewLewis.Taylor98@gmail.com. His views are his own. 

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