A Failure of America’s Fading Leadership in Ukraine … and in Europe

The United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee has apparently concluded what was blindingly obvious: the United States failed Ukraine.

In a hearing on January 15, the Committee excoriated the Obama Administration for its failure to aid Ukraine in its time of need, especially in the face of Russian bullying. (The video may be found here; the hearing begins at 35:25.) This is a point touched on here, but the bipartisan nature of the criticism, in the American body most responsible for foreign policy outside the Executive Branch, is remarkable in both its breadth and its pointedness. It is a stunning indictment of American foreign policy failures, and by implication, it is also a rebuke to Europe, whose oblivious handling of Ukraine’s bid for an Association Agreement was almost a cry for help.

In July, Russia began stepping up pressure on Ukraine, threatening a trade war and natural gas shortages should Kyiv go forward with the Association Agreement with the European Union. When Ukraine turned to Europe for financial and diplomatic assistance, it was offered less than one billion dollars, a pittance compared to the bailouts made to the European South, and an expectation that Kyiv would come crawling shortly. The International Monetary Fund offered loans conditioned on repaying billions in prior loans immediately and allowing millions of Ukrainians to freeze to death.

The United States remained silent.

Faced with the ruin of Ukraine’s economy, Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych did the only thing he could, and turned to Russia for aid. It was a stunning defeat for Europe, and a reminder to the world that high-stakes geopolitics has not ended.

According to Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), the Ranking Member on the Committee, “U.S. policy toward Ukraine was weak when it needed to be decisive and forceful. … When President Yanukovych saw we did not come out clearly and forcefully when Russia all but boycotted Ukrainian goods and threatened them, he probably reached the same conclusion that many of our friends in tough neighborhoods have made: we are not a partner that they can count on in tough times.”

Yet this was not merely a partisan attack on President Obama’s foreign policy, which has been the subject of consternation on both sides of the political divide. Committee Chair Bob Menendez (D-NJ) criticized the Administration for failing to push back on Russia’s imperial bullying of Ukraine, describing Moscow’s threatened trade embargo as “coercive” and saying it had pulled Ukraine “once again into Russia’s political and economic orbit.”

The Assistant and Deputy Assistant Secretaries of State who testified were at pains to explain away the State Department’s decision to leave Europe to blunder through the confrontation with Russia, but ultimately, the Committee was less than impressed. When Ukraine needed America more than it had at any time since 1991, the United States was absent.

Former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, who has found a role as the eminence grise of modern American foreign policy, called for more extensive American involvement. “The United States should use its influence in the IMF, the World Bank, and various G-8 and G-20 assemblies to discuss what could be done to help Ukraine expand its relationship with the EU while remaining Russia’s good neighbor,” he told the committee.

Europe should not need America’s aid to shore up its Eastern border, to expand the reach of the European project and to keep good ties with Moscow open; yet the EU today is unprepared and divided, unable even to move forward on the most important items before it. Clearly, America must show leadership once again — at a time when the United States has demonstrated that it is reluctant to do so.

This week, both sides of American politics demanded more American engagement in Ukraine’s future with Europe. Hopefully, this will be the clarion call the Obama Administration — and Europe — need to help Ukraine toward a more European future.

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