Obama’s Leadership Failures: How the West Fails Ukraine and Itself

Ukraine is a prize over which the West and Russia are locked in a (so far) nonviolent war. Russia is pouring financial, diplomatic, and geopolitical resources into the battle. The West is hoping it all turns out for the best. Unsurprisingly, Russia is winning.

This is the message slowly dawning on Western leaders, and hopefully not too late. U.S. Senator John McCain, fresh off a trip to Kyiv, has harsh words for President Barack Obama and by extension the rest of the West. “In recent months, President Putin has pulled out all the stops to coerce, intimidate and threaten Ukraine away from Europe,” McCain told the Atlantic Council in Washington earlier this week. “Russia’s bullying extends beyond Ukraine to the other so-called EU Eastern Partnership countries.” He then singled out President Obama’s “empty threats of red lines and the resulting loss of U.S. credibility” as the proximate causes of Russian adventurism.

McCain’s foreign policy rightfully has its share of critics, but he is right here. McCain told the Atlantic Council that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych understands that “to out of hand reject membership in the EU would have been a catalyst that would have caused real disruption.,” adding that “for us to believe that Vladimir Putin is going to give up Ukraine to the West without a fight and exercise many options, I think, is foolishness.”

This is both correct and far too easy on the European Union, whose fecklessness emboldened Moscow even as it dispirited Kyiv. As we have previously noted, Ukraine has desperately needed assistance to reach its European destiny, with its economy suffering from the worldwide financial crisis of five years ago, blunders by the Orange government, and Russia’s undeclared trade war of the summer. Yanukovych repeatedly stressed these concerns to Brussels, entreaties too often treated as mere bargaining tools by men and women who believed history had ended and national struggles things of the past.

Today, Ukraine has $15 billion in loans and natural gas guarantees from Russia, money the country desperately needed to keep its battered economy alive. The threat of a Russian trade war has subsided. Ukraine will not freeze to death this winter, and it will not break apart in an economic collapse. All of this has come from Russia, none of it from the European Union, even as Kyiv continues to insist on a European future; and yet for this, the West treats Kyiv as a pariah, a failure for being caught between two great powers and reaching for survival. Europe’s only contribution to Ukraine for the last six months has been chiding and hectoring, with the smug presumption that the leaders of the second-largest nation in Europe would be fools and primitives not to wreck their economy and risk tearing the country in two to join a European Union indifferent to its fate.

It should not need saying, but you cannot win a war you will not fight. The West will not fight Putin; instead, it is engaged in a faintly ridiculous war of words with Kyiv.

Obama’s diplomatic efforts on Ukraine have been close to non-existent save to echo Europe’s unfathomable dismay at the current state of affairs. Angela Merkel seemed only to realize that the prize of Ukraine was slipping away after the fact; today, her government spends more time chiding Ukraine’s government than trying to out-maneuver Moscow. Brussels is casting about for someone to blame even as Putin gives Ukraine every reason to turn East.

This is akin to Western human rights NGOs spending their time protesting Western governments’ infractions and ignoring brutality by dictators; it is an exercise in feeling good, of striking a soft target without meaningful effect rather than a deserving target that might strike back. Yelling at Ukraine will not deter Putin, it will not save Ukraine’s brittle economy, and it will not change anything save the willingness of most Ukrainians to stake their futures on indifferent allies.

If the West is to have a united and peaceful Europe, it must once again do battle — diplomatic and economic battle — with the Empire of the East. The West must show Ukraine that there is safety and prosperity in a European future, and Russia must suffer for its adventurism. The West has greater economic and diplomatic resources than Russia, and can easily exceed both the immediate aid and the long-term economic benefits Putin offers; they must provide both of those to Ukraine, today, to win.

America and Europe must once again believe in the justice of their own cause and act that way, before it is too late.

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