01/09/2015 04:39 am ET Updated Mar 10, 2015

Two Cheers for Obama's Ukraine Policy


While 2014 will certainly not be remembered as a particularly great year for U.S. foreign policy or American domestic politics, one important challenge where the Obama administration has made some real progress is in managing the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. The United States embraced a measured and prudent policy in response to the so-called Maidan revolution in Kiev, Russia's subsequent annexation of Crimea, and the intervention of Russian forces in support of anti-Western rebels in Ukraine's east. Rather than engage in hyperbolic or overly assertive language, President Obama firmly reiterated the commitment of the United States to its NATO partners, worked with those partners to impose an increasingly harsh program of economic sanctions on key Russian elites and institutions, and called for a peaceful resolution of the crisis. While many hawkish observers in Washington demanded a more overt and energetic response from the Obama administration, the past six months can only be seen as vindication of President Obama's diplomacy toward Russia and proof of the abject failure of the shortsighted and domestically driven foreign policy of Vladimir Putin.

A Measured, Cooperative Approach

The Russian intervention in Ukraine was met with a largely collaborative and minimally escalatory policy from Washington. Whereas more hawkish leaders may have leapt at the opportunity to forcefully respond (in language if not in deed) to Vladimir Putin's aggressive actions in his "near abroad" after the change of government in Kiev, the Obama administration struck a firm but measured tone. It seems that there was a recognition that engaging in bellicose rhetoric and demanding a cessation of provocative behavior would have also squarely placed Europe in the middle. With so much more directly on the line than the United States in the Ukraine crisis (particularly the geographic proximity of the Russian military threat and the extensive nature of economic and energy linkages with Russian institutions), European leaders were unlikely to be any more enthusiastic about ultimatums from their ally than about threats from their perceived adversary. Moreover, given the unilateral orientation of the previous administration, there may have been reflexive opposition to simply following along with U.S. policies (on the scope and severity of sanctions) even if U.S. and European interests largely align vis-à-vis Russia's adventurism.

By foregoing overheated rhetoric and working constructively with allies in a less public way, the Obama administration instead was able to provide the Europeans the time to come to their own conclusions. The administration initiated targeted but increasingly severe sanctions to avoid any possible claims by Russia or sympathetic states that American policy has been belligerent or aggressive. The United States has smartly reinforced NATO and cemented its commitments to partner states, maintaining assurance and dampening fears on the continent, but it has also avoided playing to Putin's domestic audiences and removing one of his key sources of power. Most importantly, key partners like Germany and France have been able to see Putin's policies for what they are, free from U.S. badgering or cajoling. In short, the United States policy, while laying the groundwork for extensive multilateral cooperation on a sanctions regime that would require widespread participation, has figuratively provided Putin with enough rope to hang himself, and he has effectively done so.

Without overt pushing or prodding, U.S. diplomacy allowed European leaders to come to their own decisions about Moscow's intentions as Putin's rhetoric became more bellicose and Russia's actions grew more threatening. This further solidified the type of robust international cooperation necessary to effectively implement sanctions on Russia, even if such sanctions could cause pain for struggling European economies.

Effective Economic Sanctions

While economic sanctions were initially dismissed by more hawkish critics in the United States as weak and ineffectual, the gradual, expanding sanctions regime has proven extremely effective. Throughout history, economic sanctions have often failed to achieve the desired effect for a host of reasons. In some cases, obtaining the requisite cooperation to maintain sanctions could be difficult. In others, the economic impact could be passed from the regime to its people. In this case, the Obama administration achieved the cooperation necessary to make sanctions bite, and because of larger trends like the downturn in oil prices and the nature of Russia's economy, the regime, and increasingly the Russian people, are feeling the effects of those sanctions. At the outset of the crisis, the United States had little real leverage, but with its allies and partners it was able to create some, and now Moscow is confronted with real, tangible costs for its reckless and dangerous policies. No one want to see Russia destabilized, but the ball is in Mr. Putin's court. Efforts to achieve a comprehensive and fair resolution to the Ukraine crisis would certainly warrant an easing of sanctions and perhaps a return to the status quo ante, but it would also require a removal of Russian troops from Ukrainian soil and a reconciliation between Kiev and its opponents in the East.

It is obvious that the effects of the sanctions have also been magnified by the decline of global oil prices, eroding the underlying material base of Russia's power. Washington cannot take credit for this, but this fortuitous trend has certainly made it far more difficult for Moscow to hold out against sanctions or shift the costs to avoid the intended punishment for Russia's inappropriate behavior. Understanding the consequences of the sanctions regime, Mr. Putin should shift his policy to work toward a resolution of the Ukraine crisis. Of course, it is not clear that he will.

Avoiding Escalation

The second clear benefit of the Obama administration's approach is that it has avoided potential escalation and, where possible, avoided playing into Mr. Putin's nationalistic and paranoid rhetoric. Working through NATO and focusing on economic sanctions, Washington has reassured its allies and presented a firm-but-not-provocative Atlantic response to Moscow's intervention in Ukraine.

It may seem outside the realm of possibility that a major war could erupt in Eastern Europe. However, Russia has clearly been willing to use force in asserting its interests in its traditional "near abroad," as evidenced by the 2008 invasion of Georgia and the massing of regular ground forces on Ukraine's border for much of the duration of the crisis. The actual involvement of "covert" Russian forces in the ongoing conflict only underscores this point but also reflects some possibility that Putin may want to find some negotiated resolution to the crisis.

At the same time, the recently published Russian military doctrine follows its 2010 predecessor by focusing on the threat of fighting an adversary or coalition with high-technology conventional forces (U.S. and NATO) threatening a territory perceived to be vital to Russian interests. The use of nuclear weapons to "deescalate" such a conflict and avoid a possible Russian strategic defeat was broached in the 2010 draft, and Russia now explicitly views NATO as a primary threat. Under these conditions, the challenge for the United States is to sufficiently reassure its European allies without taking actions that could be perceived (or misperceived) by Putin and his advisors as further encroaching on Russia's vital interests. Large-scale NATO military maneuvers or other actions would certainly carry such risks. Similarly, the tone and tenor and rhetoric of Western leaders, most notably President Obama, is heard and interpreted in Moscow.

Avoiding making Putin's case for him to his domestic political audience is an important and difficult balancing act when also attempting to maintain alliance cohesion and signal resolve to deter further aggression. The sanctions regime devised and implemented by the Obama administration has seemingly achieved that balance, which is no small feat. And while the actual impact of the sanctions may be much greater than intended, potentially allowing Putin to blame the West for creating hardships at home, the costs imposed upon Russia should spark some reconsideration of Russian policy and place pressure on Putin where there was previously little perceived consequences for his actions.

Moving Forward

Despite these limited successes, this is certainly no time to celebrate. The Ukraine crisis has not been resolved, and little has changed in the East, where irregular Russian forces remain, and where large-scale violence can break out at any time. The impact of the sanctions regime and Russia's economic turmoil could potentially destabilize Russia, and this could have dangerous consequences. It should be a clear priority to attempt to bring Moscow to the negotiating table and work toward a comprehensive resolution of the crisis. Much work needs to be done, and there is no guarantee that things couldn't get worse.

As part of any comprehensive solution, it should be made clear to all parties that Ukraine will not be offered or granted NATO membership. While Kiev may build deeper economic ties to the EU, the current crisis underscores the importance that Russian elites (not solely Putin) place on maintaining relations with Ukraine and some measure of influence over Russia's "near abroad." Russia has legitimate national interests, and the West should avoid exacerbating Russian fears by expanding NATO to Russia's borders.

However, given the difficult and complex situation confronting the Obama administration in the aftermath of the Maidan revolution and Russia's moves against the new government in Kiev, U.S. policy has been largely effective. In embracing a gradual and multilateral approach focused on sanctions, Washington consolidated European support and successfully punished Moscow for its behavior by raising the costs. This has set the stage for a possible resolution to the crisis, but ultimately the decisions of Vladimir Putin will play a major role in determining the outcome.