How Russia could escape rising American pressure on Ukraine

Congress and the Obama administration are growing tired of Russia's belligerence in Ukraine. But Russia helped head off rising tensions with a diplomatic solution once before – in Syria in 2013 – and could yet again.

Mykola Lazarenko/Presidential Press Service/AP
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (c.) French President Francois Hollande (r.) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel meet in Kiev, Ukraine, Thursday. The leaders of France and Germany were carrying a new peace initiative to the Ukrainian and Russian capitals Thursday amid a flurry of high-level diplomacy.

The potentially historic choice that President Obama has tried to avoid – providing military backing to Ukraine and risking a new cold war with Russia – may be no longer avoidable.

Secretary of State John Kerry was in Kiev Thursday insisting diplomacy is still the preferred path forward. But he also warned Russia that the United States needs to see that Russia also wants a diplomatic solution to the deepening conflict with Ukraine.

With pressure building on Mr. Obama in Congress, among influential former administration officials, and even in some quarters of NATO, it appears that the Obama needs to see something positive from Russian President Vladimir Putin very soon.

“The president is running out of time for his preferred diplomatic approach, with its emphasis on sanctions, to work,” says Nikolas Gvosdev, a professor of national security studies at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. “But I think the White House is also aware that a new direction now is not just a matter of a few crates of arms, but a decision with deep and long-term strategic impact on everything from US-Russia relations to US goals in the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific.”

Mr. Gvosdev likens the decision to the president’s decision in August 2013 not to launch airstrikes against Syria over its use of chemical weapons. That U-turn came after Russia agreed to join the US in a plan to remove Syria’s chemical weapons. Gvosdev wonders if Mr. Putin might once again provide the diplomatic escape hatch Obama needs to put off providing Ukraine with lethal assistance.

“In that case [Obama] got the diplomatic out from Moscow, and you have to wonder if maybe that’s what the White House is hoping for again,” says Gvosdev, who specializes in Russia and Eastern Europe.

The next few days of intense international diplomacy may decide which way Obama goes, at least in the short term. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande are to meet with Putin in Moscow Friday, then on Monday Ms. Merkel is set to meet with Obama at the White House.

“The question now will be whether Chancellor Merkel comes with a tent peg that Obama can use to keep the diplomatic option for this crisis” standing, Gvosdev says.

Mr. Putin’s top foreign policy adviser, Yuri Ushakov, said in Moscow Thursday that his boss is “ready to talk in a constructive way” in Friday’s meeting, and that Putin is counting on “achieving some agreements” to contribute to “overall stabilization” in Ukraine.

In the US, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Tennessee Republican Bob Corker, called on Obama Thursday to deliver soon a plan for delivering military assistance, including “defensive weapons,” to Ukraine.

“The US and our allies must be more invested in Ukraine’s success than Russia is in its failure,” Senator Corker said in a letter to Obama. He expects the administration to submit a report in the coming days “that clearly states your readiness to supply appropriate lethal assistance to the Ukrainian government and provides details of the specific weapons to be delivered.”

At Senate confirmation hearings Wednesday, Obama’s nominee to become Defense secretary, Ashton Carter, indicated he would support providing arms to Ukraine. He suggested that Russia’s intervention in Ukraine on the side of separatists leaves the US morally obligated, under a 1994 accord, to “assure” Ukraine’s ability “to find its own way as an independent country.”

Earlier this week, eight former officials and European security experts, including former US ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder, called on Obama to begin providing Ukraine with lethal assistance. They said “defensive” weapons such as anti-tank missiles could prompt Putin to seek a diplomatic settlement.

But others caution against rushing into a decision that could have implications for years to come.

Providing sophisticated weaponry to Ukraine “will lead only to further violence and instability, and possibly a dangerous confrontation with Russia,” says Russia expert Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution in Washington.

The Naval War College’s Gvosdev says the US has to consider that it’s not just a matter of “dropping in a few crates of weapons,” but rather providing the training and long-term support to make the weapons a part of a strategy for success. “Unfortunately, the US has a tendency to put the cart before the horse and not consider all the implications of its actions.”

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