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Obama’s foreign policy comes home to roost in Ukraine

File photo of US President Barack Obama meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G8 Summit at Lough Erne in Northern Ireland last year.
By David J. Kramer
Special to The Washington Post

The US president has looked the other way far too often

President Obama faces the gravest challenge of his presidency in figuring out how to respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. How he responds will define his two terms in office, as well as determine the future of Ukraine, Russia and US standing in the world. After all, if the authoritarian tyrant Vladimir Putin is allowed to get away with his unprovoked attack against his neighbour, a blatant violation of that country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, then US credibility, already damaged by Obama’s poor handling of Syria, will be down to zero. Allies won’t believe in us, enemies won’t fear us and the world will be a much more dangerous place. The White House statement issued late Saturday afternoon expressing “deep concern over Russia’s clear violation of Ukrainian sovereignty” was woefully inadequate. There are things Obama needs to do immediately, some in collaboration with our European and NATO allies, others on our own. They include:

— Imposing sanctions against Russian state-owned banks and financial institutions;

—Widening application of the 2012 Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act against an array of Kremlin officials, including Putin;

—Terminating all negotiations with Russia on a possible trade agreement or promoting business;

— Calling an emergency NATO meeting to reassure NATO allies that border Ukraine and initiate mobilization of forces to be ready for any developments (Article Four of the NATO Treaty, invoked by Latvia and Lithuania, calls for consultations about security concerns);

—Sending US military ships to the Black Sea for any contingencies;

—Pushing for a UN Security Council resolution condemning Russia’s aggression against its neighbour, even though Russia will obviously veto it; and

—Joining other Group of Eight members in expelling Russia and announcing the cancellation of Obama’s plans to visit Sochi, where Putin was to host this year’s G8 meeting in June.

There may well be other things Obama should do: some have called for deploying US forces to western Ukraine and the capital, Kiev; others have said we should immediately offer NATO membership to Ukraine.

The US should aim for realistic responses, ones that will not lead to divisions within NATO. But Obama should also not telegraph to Putin what US limits are in responding to Russia's aggression, as he and Secretary of State John Kerry did in fecklessly trying to make the case for a “pinprick” military strike against Syria’s Bashar al-Assad for the use of chemical weapons. Let Putin wonder how far the United States and NATO might go in responding to his military attack.

Ukraine, a country of 46 million people, straddles NATO and the European Union on one side and Russia on the other. It is key to realizing a long-held US vision of a Europe whole, free and at peace.

In 1994, the United States, Ukraine, Russia and Britain signed the Budapest Memorandum as part of the deal for Ukraine to relinquish its nuclear weapons to Russia. Under that agreement, signatories are, among other things, to respect Ukrainian independence and sovereignty within its borders; protect Ukraine from aggression; and avoid economic pressure on Ukraine. Clearly, Russia has violated that understanding. The United States and Britain have an obligation to respond, and hopefully other NATO allies will too.

Like his overall approach to foreign policy, Obama has been much too removed from the deteriorating situation in Ukraine the past few months and spoke out for the first time only 10 days ago, after Ukrainian authorities used gruesome force against protesters in Kiev. Obama warned Ukrainian officials not to “step over the line,” a phrase that lost meaning when he warned al-Assad not to cross a “red line” at use of chemical weapons — and then did nothing to follow through.

For years, Putin has shown zero respect for his US counterpart and utter disdain for the West in general, and the United States in particular. Obama’s reset policy is partly to blame for what is unfolding in Ukraine, after giving Putin a pass on his human rights abuses, aggressive policies toward his neighbours and support for murderous regimes like the one in Syria. Putin never saw from the United States any deterrent or consequences for his outrageous behaviour, such as trade sanctions against Russia’s neighbours in violation of its World Trade Organization commitments or the worst crackdown in human rights in Russia since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

All too often, Obama and his team looked the other way. That neglect is coming home to roost in the worst way possible: a Russian invasion of Ukraine. At least we can stop listening to those in the Obama administration and in the analyst community who called for Russia to have a role in deciding Ukraine’s future or to “Finlandize” Ukraine by the United States promising Russia that Ukraine would never join NATO. Putin’s actions in Ukraine should make clear to all that as long as he is in power, Russia will remain a threat to freedom and to many of the United States’ interests.

David J. Kramer is president of Freedom House and a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Russia and Ukraine in the George W. Bush administration.

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