President Obama is making a major mistake by concluding the United States has no strategic interest in the future of Ukraine and even if he does get tough Russian Vladimir Putin isn’t likely to take him very seriously, according to former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton.
The Obama administration is publicly warning Russia not to meddle in Ukrainian affairs as a transitional phase gets underway and eventually leads to new elections in the coming weeks. However, Obama is also signaling that the U.S. won’t be encouraging a specific course of action, noting last week that has wasn’t interested in “moving pieces around on a Cold War chessboard.”
Bolton says that makes an uphill diplomatic fight that much harder.
“Putin has the strong hand here, both in terms of Ukrainian domestic politics and in terms of the economic leverage that he can exercise. By contrast, the United States and Europe don’t have that much to offer. We’ve heard the president himself and his spokesman say repeatedly that we don’t see ourselves in competition with Russia here, which is a big mistake because we certainly are in competition,” said Bolton.
“I’m afraid this may be a very unequal contest, unhappily for the people in Ukraine who just want a chance to have free and fair elections elect a representative government and decide their own course,” said Bolton, who says Obama simply fails to grasp the importance of the opportunity presenting itself in Ukraine.
“I think the president believes we have no strategic interest in Ukraine. He’s said repeatedly he thinks it’s a matter to be left to the Ukrainian people. In fact we do have strategic interests in Ukraine. It’s a large country. It’s almost 50 million people. It was the breadbasket of the Soviet Union and still has enormous and untapped agricultural potential. It could be a major player in Central European affairs, and it sits right between the eastern border of NATO and the western border of Russia,” said Bolton.
“Let’s be clear, even if Obama doesn’t see that, Putin sees the strategic interest from his perspective. So for us to say we’re not going to play in Ukrainian affairs is just ceding the field to the Russians. I think it’s a view on Obama’s part that very curiously ends up in exactly the same place as Ron Paul,” he said.
So what should the U.S. be advocating and working towards with respect to Ukraine?
“I think we should be making it clear that, along with the Europeans and the International Monetary Fund, we’re prepared to help out a transition on Ukraine to help free them from Soviet-era linkages that bind them to the Russian economy. I think we also ought to be saying, as the United States, that we’re prepared to revisit the mistake NATO made in 2008, when we should have put both Ukraine and Georgia on a path to NATO membership,” said Bolton.
“Even though economic integration with Europe and the West as a whole is on the mind of Ukrainians, the fact is the European Union cannot provide security. Only NATO can do that and I think that’s the message that Putin needs to hear, that he is not going to have a free hand in Ukraine or any of the other former republics of the Soviet Union,” said Bolton.
Obama’s “reset button” approach to Russian relations is widely panned, with many experts concluding Putin outmaneuvered Obama over nuclear weapons reduction,Syria’s weapons of mass destruction and Iran’s nuclear program. So if Putin is perceived as having the upper hand in our relationship, how much leverage could Obama gain by adopting a more aggressive posture like the one outlined by Bolton?
Bolton says he fears it’s too late for Obama to influence an ideal outcome.
“Unfortunately, if Barack Obama said what I just said, they’d laugh at it in the Kremlin because they see that Obama has a foreign policy that is 99 percent rhetoric and one percent action. I think that’s the problem we’re going to have for the next three years. The idea that Obama says Russia should stay out of the internal affairs of the Ukraine , they find that laughable in Moscow. They are going to interfere. There’s no doubt about it,” said Bolton.
“Everybody says this is a matter for the Ukrainians, but the Russians aren’t going to leave it to the Ukrainians, and if we stand on the sideline the odds certainly favor the Russian position winning,” said Bolton.
Bolton says election corruption is certainly a danger in Ukraine, but he says the best course in the very near term is for the electoral process to play out. He says the nation is very evenly divided geographically, politically and by faith. Bolton does not think partition is a wise course to pursue right now, but may be needed in the near future depending upon how the next few months unfold.