The Obama administration would like nothing more than to find an off ramp from the Ukrainian crisis. An unwelcome distraction from its domestic agenda, Ukraine is also dangerous territory for an administration that is unsure of its footing in foreign policy.
The last thing President Obama wants is an ongoing international crisis that could focus attention on the need for him to stop the retrenchment of American power.
So what better way to defuse the crisis than to try the Syria gambit? By this I don’t mean the threat of force, but rather talking tough at the beginning but caving at the slightest hint of compromise.
The president’s critics may think that his Syria policy has been a disaster, but that’s not how the administration sees it. To them it resulted in an agreement for Syria to abolish its chemical weapons.
Never mind that this process has stalled and that President Bashar al-Assad used the time to consolidate his gains over the rebels. The administration still believes that the “hit them hard at first but then cave” approach worked in Syria.
And they may think it will work in Ukraine as well. Secretary of State John Kerry has been blowing hot and cold from the very beginning of the crisis.
He talked tough early on, more or less calling the Russians liars and lecturing them about being on the wrong side of history. But Wednesday, after meeting in Paris with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Kerry hinted at possible soft-landing to come.
Despite the lack of any substantial progress, he asserted that the talks were promising because they marked "the beginning of a negotiation." A negotiation toward what exactly was unclear. But therein lays a clue about what could happen next.
Here is how it could go down in Ukraine.
At the first hint of Russian flexibility -- it doesn’t need to be much; a mere vague phrase of conciliation by Lavrov or Putin will do -- the administration grabs it and turns it into Kerry’s “beginning of a negotiation.”
It could involve international oversight of a referendum in Crimea, which likely would go in Russia’s favor. Or it could result in talks over reinstating the original Ukrainian agreement, which the Russians claim has been overturned.
There would be plenty of people cheering Kerry on in this direction. The Germans and the French don’t want to rupture economic relations with Russia and would likely jump at the chance.
At home a bevy of experts who fear confrontation would celebrate the “breakthrough” as a diplomatic triumph.
Amidst all the confusion over what the negotiations actually mean would be the reality that Putin’s troops are already inside Crimea. That hard, cold reality would hang over any talks, and the most likely outcome would be at least de facto Western tolerance if not outright acceptance of the “facts on the ground.”
There’s only one problem with this scenario. It may not be the one Putin has in mind. He may actually want more than Crimea.
At this point we frankly don’t know what his endgame is. But we cannot rule out that he may surprise us all and double down on a hardline that will not give Obama the way out he seeks.
In the meantime we should be careful not to convey that Russia has an historical claim to Ukraine. This will only encourage Putin to dig in his heels and not cooperate.
The Ukrainian people, not the Kremlin, have an historical claim to Ukraine. Let them decide their fate -- as a nation, not province by province.
Kim R. Holmes is a Distinguished Fellow at The Heritage Foundation. A former Assistant Secretary of State, he’s the author of the new book, "The Closing of the Liberal Mind: How Groupthink and Intolerance Define the Left" (Encounter Books, April 12, 2016).