In Ukraine, Is the Obama Administration Failing On Purpose?

Eastern Ukraine is sliding toward chaos, and the Obama administration’s response to Russian aggression has been limited to sanctions imposed on a handful of individuals associated with the Putin regime. It is hard to see how such measures could deter Putin, and, as George Friedman of Stratfor explains, they won’t: “The U.S. Opts for Ineffective Sanctions on Russia.” Friedman’s analysis is, I think, intensely interesting:

Placing effective sanctions on a country such as Russia is much more complicated than placing them on countries like Iran or the Central African Republic because the Russians have potential military responses. They also have the ability to retaliate by seizing Western assets in Russia: There are many Western companies doing business in Russia with significant equipment, factories, bank accounts and so on. Moscow also has the power to cut energy supplies to Europe. Whether it would be prudent for Russia respond in those ways is an important question, but the mere fact Russia has a range of retaliatory options is an important consideration.

Partly for that reason and partly because of a theory of sanctions that has emerged in recent years, the United States and some European countries have largely opted out of placing sanctions on Russia as a whole. Instead, they have place sanctions on individuals and a small number of companies in Russia deemed responsible for actions in Ukraine that the United States and Europe find objectionable. …

Friedman reviews a number of the problems with trying to impose effective sanctions on a few individuals and companies:

First, there is the question of whether Russian leaders care more for power or for money. … It is…hard to imagine that the Putin regime will shift policy — and thereby admit weakness, a fatal error for anyone in power — to preserve part of its members’ fortunes.

Moreover, the Russian leadership has kept some of its money inside Russia to avoid seizure by Western governments.

Second, there is the question of intertwined assets. …

Third, there is the political question. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s popularity has soared since the Russian annexation of Crimea.

Now Friedman gets to the real crux of the matter:

In addition, the United States doesn’t want to threaten regime survival in a country with massive military power. Nor does it want to engage in an action that would trigger an invasion of Ukraine and force the United States to either back away or join a war it is unprepared for. It also will try to avoid mistakenly seizing U.S. and European assets — assets deployed by Russia deliberately to bait Washington into making just such a mistake.

The Obama administration has a final major reason to avoid effective sanctions. If someone had said a year ago that U.S.-Russian relations would reach the present point, they would have been laughed at, something I can attest to. Foreign investment is a major component of the U.S. economy, and distinguished political leaders are an excellent source of capital. If you are the leader of China, Saudi Arabia or India, all of which have problems with the United States that could conceivably mushroom, you might think twice before investing your money in the United States. And there are more countries than those four that have potential conflicts with the United States.

So, in Friedman’s view, the Obama administration has deliberately chosen an ineffective response to Russian aggression:

The U.S. sanctions strategy is therefore not designed to change Russian policies; it is designed to make it look like the United States is trying to change Russian policy. And it is aimed at those in Congress who have made this a major issue and at those parts of the State Department that want to orient U.S. national security policy around the issue of human rights. Both can be told that something is being done — and both can pretend that something is being done — when in fact nothing can be done. In a world clamoring for action, prudent leaders sometimes prefer the appearance of doing something to actually doing something.

So in Friedman’s view, the Obama administration is doing the right thing: faking it for political purposes, while in fact ceding the battlefield to Putin. It may well be true that at this late date, the administration has no better option. But whether that would be true if Obama had conducted a competent foreign policy from the beginning, is an entirely different question.

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