By not arming Ukraine for now, Obama underscores 'diplomacy first' strategy

At a White House press conference Monday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Obama said he has 'not made a decision yet' on providing lethal weaponry to Ukraine to help it repel Russian-backed rebels.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
President Barack Obama listens as German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks during their joint news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Feb. 9, 2015. The leaders were expected to discuss the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, and arming Ukrainian fighters to wage a more effective battle against Russian-backed separatists.

President Obama made it clear Monday he is not ready to provide lethal weaponry to Ukraine – and in so doing he recommitted to the “diplomacy as long as it has a chance” foundation of his national security policy.

At a White House press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel before the two leaders sat down to lunch, Mr. Obama said he has “not made a decision yet” on providing antitank missiles and other “defensive” weapons to Ukraine to help it repel what he called “Russia’s aggression” in the eastern part of the country.

By indicating he will wait on making a decision at least until results emerge from a summit set for Wednesday among European leaders, Ukrainian representatives, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Obama backed Ms. Merkel and her position that diplomacy deserves one last chance to resolve Europe’s most threatening conflict since the end of the cold war.

Merkel defended the need for “one further attempt to make progress through diplomatic means,” adding, “I would not be able to live with not having made this attempt.”

In backing her – apparently against the advice of some of his own aides and clearly in opposition to some vocal congressional proponents of arming Ukraine – Obama is placing a priority on maintaining the transatlantic Western alliance that he says lies at the foundation of US foreign policy. “If diplomacy fails this week, there’s going to be a strong unified response from” the United States and Europe, he said.

Obama also indicated that part of his reluctance to send arms into Ukraine stems from his desire not to completely write off Russia as a partner in some of the broad international issues that he aims to address in the last two years of his presidency – from nonproliferation and preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon to cybersecurity and climate change.

In that sense, Obama’s caution on Ukraine can be seen in light of the new national security strategy the White House unveiled Friday. As part of that strategy, the president eschews an over-attention to what National Security Adviser Susan Rice calls the “crises of the day” – which Obama believes would distract the US from addressing the broader issues of the 21st century.

At the press conference Monday, Obama emphasized that while Western powers have placed “costly” sanctions on Russia in an effort to dissuade it from “even more bad decisions,” the point is not to weaken Russia or see it fail.

“We want a strong, prosperous, confident Russia that can be a partner with us on a whole host of global challenges,” Obama said. He even tipped his cap to Moscow at one point, saying the Russians’ cooperation in international negotiations to limit Iran’s nuclear program “is an area where they’ve served a constructive role.”

That kind of reasoning dismays some congressional leaders and foreign policy experts who say the days of pursuing any kind of common ground with Mr. Putin have long passed. European leaders cannot be counted on to stand up to Putin, they say, without a firm determination from Washington to confront Russia’s violations of Ukrainian sovereignty.

Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona dismissed Merkel’s diplomatic overtures to Putin over the weekend as “foolishness” and compared Merkel’s and French President François Hollande’s diplomatic mission to the Kremlin Friday to European powers’ appeasement of Nazi Germany before World War II.

Nile Gardiner, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Thatcher Center in Washington, says it’s time for Obama to acknowledge that the “reset” with Russia “has long been ... dead.” The US should instead act to further “marginalize” Russia, he adds, by slapping sanctions on more Russian officials, reducing Europe’s energy dependence on Russia, and withdrawing from the New START Treaty that Obama concluded with Russia in 2011, reducing both countries’ nuclear weapons and launchers.

Others say that by putting off a decision on sending defensive weapons to Ukraine, Obama is showing not just his preference for diplomacy, but his reluctance to burn all bridges with Moscow.

“You can almost feel that Obama is avoiding an action that once and for all would repudiate the reset,” says Nikolas Gvosdev, a professor of national security studies and Russia expert at the US Naval War College in Newport, R.I.

"There are other areas where [Obama] wants to build a legacy, including Iran, that are going to be a lot more difficult without Russia on board,” Dr. Gvosdev says. “This [arming of Ukraine] is going to end US-Russia cooperation in other areas.”

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.