Combatting Crimea

Jewish Light Editorial

Notwithstanding assertions to the contrary, President Barack Obama is taking the practical and reasonable steps required in retaliation to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military aggression. The American government has acted in three ways – unilaterally, on behalf of the West and on behalf of the world – to combat Russia’s actions and possible intentions.

On its own, the United States has suspended diplomatic status, visas and financial access to key members of the Russian community, many of whom have strong business ties to the West. Not only has this caused significant personal and corporate duress, but the hurt has been felt in Moscow’s stock exchange and financial markets. Moreover, Secretary of State John Kerry and Sen. Dick Durban, D-Ill., said over the weekend that the U.S. is considering supplying Ukraine with some defense arms to deter further Russian encroachments.

Second, Obama is in meetings in The Hague, Netherlands this week and, along with his European, Canadian and Japanese partners, has decided to suspend the upcoming G-8 summit in Sochi, Russia ( This essentially ends, at least for now, Putin’s 15-year involvement in the key economic group., which will revert to G-7 status.

The American president’s task in bringing Europe along has been challenging. Despite the harsh condemnation of Putin by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the EU’s interests do not fully align with those of America, as parts of Europe have grown dependent on Russian petroleum products in their energy programs.

Merkel now seems willing to impose sanctions that will hurt German business interests to support the greater good. And to its credit, the EU, after an initially tepid response and with U.S. urging, has moved to assert more influence. Suspending Russia from the G-8 is one indication; another is finalizing an agreement with the interim leaders of Ukraine that ousted President Viktor Yanukovich had refused to sign under Russian pressure.  

In addition to the coalition action, the U.S. has pushed hard for full international censure as well. Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, put together a strong resolution condemning Russia’s actions in Ukraine, which of course was vetoed by Russia, but which got the rest of the 15-member Security Council on record. The single abstention by China was especially telling: China doesn’t like meddling in its own relations with Tibet or Taiwan, yet didn’t vote against the resolution chastising Russia. China was about as close to an ally on that issue as Russia could have expected to get, but Putin was left high and dry.

Despite acting on three fronts simultaneously, the administration isn’t pretending the threat is over or that normal diplomacy with Russia will be restored anytime soon. Quite the contrary, as Tom Donilon, former Obama national security advisor, said of Putin in the New York Times, “He’s declared himself…That’s who you have to deal with. Trying to wish it away is not a policy.”

But fear of an unknown future needn’t be confused with apathy or appeasement. During the initial aftermath of the Russian invasion of Crimea, there was considerable political rhetoric that Obama’s “weakness” had invited Russia’s aggression.

This is wrong for at least two reasons. First, Putin has acted with varying forms of aggression during the terms of the last three presidents, notably with respect to the Republic of Georgia during the waning days of President George W. Bush’s administration. While former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (a Bush appointee who continued into the Obama administration) and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton voiced their skepticism as to whether the so-called diplomatic “reset” with Russia would work, they conceded it needed to be tried. And before Putin reclaimed power from his then successor/now predecessor as president, Dmitri Medvedev, a START treaty, cooperation on Iran and new supply routes to Afghanistan suggested a way forward. Now, not so much.

Moreover, those who ascribe weakness to the administration have nothing to point to as an alternative they would have engaged, other than a generalized feeling that the more hawkish voices would have some magic effect. As many have come to accept, Putin moves to the beat of his different drum, which pounds out rhythms more consistent with those of historic Mother Russia than of contemporary free democracy.

Absent advocacy for war mobilization, which most Americans would eschew at this point, tough economic sanctions, support for Ukraine, and a strong Western and world alliance seem to be the most effective current tools in dealing with an increasingly isolated Russia. Those are what the U.S. administration is working on, and while they may not bring back Crimea, they serve the best chance of holding the line in its present place.