Straight Talk on Ukraine

Originally appeared in a longer version in Foreign Policy in Focus.

It's been interesting to observe those who are trying to blame the ongoing crisis in Ukraine on the Obama administration for either intervening too much or not intervening enough.

On the right, you have political figures claiming that Obama's supposed "weakness" somehow emboldened Moscow to engage in aggressive moves against Crimea. Sarah Palin, for example, claims that Obama's failure to respond forcefully to Russia's bloody incursion into Georgia in 2008 made Russia's "invasion" possible, despite the fact that Obama wasn't even president then and therefore couldn't have done much.

Even some Democrats, like Delaware Senator Chris Coons, claim that Obama's failure to attack Syria last fall made the United States look weak.

In reality, there seems to be little correlation between the willingness of Moscow to assert its power in areas within its traditional spheres of influence and who occupies the White House: The Soviets invaded Hungary in 1956 when Eisenhower was president; the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 when Johnson was president; the Soviets successfully pressed for martial law in Poland in 1981 when Reagan was president; the Russians attacked Georgia in 2008 when Bush was president. In each case, as much as these administrations opposed these actions, it was determined that any military or other aggressive counter-moves would likely do more harm than good. Washington cannot realistically do any more in response to Russian troops seizing Crimea in 2014 in the name of protecting Russian lives and Russian bases than Moscow could do in response to U.S. troops seizing Panama in 1989 in the name of protecting American lives and American bases.

Limits to American Power

There is an equally unrealistic view of supposed American omnipotence from some segments of the left in their claims that the United States was somehow responsible for the popular uprising that toppled the Yanukovych regime last month.

There was some funding through the National Endowment for Democracy and other organizations to some opposition groups that were involved in the recent insurrection, but to imply that such aid was somehow the cause of the uprising denies agency to the millions of Ukrainians who took to the streets in an effort to determine (for better or worse) their own future and is as ludicrous as President Reagan's claims in the 1980s that Soviet to leftist rebels aid was responsible for the revolutions in Central America. (The oft-quoted $5 billion figure is the total U.S. foreign aid to the country since independence in 1991, not a "destabilization" plan.)

The uprising that overthrew Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych and his allied pro-Russian oligarchs was not a classic nonviolent pro-democracy uprising like those that have toppled scores of dictatorships in recent decades. Yanukovych was democratically elected, and the forces that ousted him included--though were not dominated by--armed, neo-fascist militias. At the same time, Yanukovych's rampant corruption, repression, and divide-and-rule tactics had cost him his legitimacy in the eyes of the majority of Ukrainians. The protesters were primarily liberal democrats who engaged in legitimate acts of nonviolent resistance against severe government repression, many of whom spent months in freezing temperatures in a struggle for a better Ukraine.

At the same time, given that the new government includes corrupt neo-liberals along with representatives of the far right, it would be equally wrong to assume that the change of government represents some kind of major progressive democratic opening. And the refusal of the opposition to abide by the compromise agreement of February 21, which called for early elections and limited presidential powers, and instead seize power directly raises questions regarding the legitimacy of the new government. Whether for good or for ill, however, and despite whatever attempts Western powers have made to influence the outcome, the change of government is ultimately the responsibility of Ukrainians, not the Obama administration.

U.S. Leadership

While there certainly does need to be a strong international response to Russia's aggrandizement, the United States is hardly in a position to take leadership on the matter.

For example, Secretary of State John Kerry has chastised Putin's actions in Crimea on the grounds that "You just don't invade another country on phony pretext in order to assert your interests," adding that Russia's actions constituted a "direct, overt violation of international law." While this is certainly a valid statement in itself, it's ironic coming from a man who so vigorously supported the illegal U.S. invasion of Iraq on the phony pretext that Saddam Hussein had "weapons of mass destruction."

Similarly, in 2004, Kerry, Joe Biden, and other members of Congress who later became key Obama administration officials unconditionally endorsed then-Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon's plan to incorporate large sections of the occupied West Bank into Israel, a proposal denounced by international legal authorities worldwide as an illegal annexation.

There is also the fact that the Obama administration appears willing to accept Morocco's illegal takeover of occupied Western Sahara (under the autocratic monarchy's dubious "autonomy" proposal) in defiance of international law, a landmark 1975 World Court decision, and a series of UN resolutions. While illegitimate, the Russians were at least willing to offer the people of Crimea a choice in a referendum. By contrast, the United States has effectively abandoned the United Nations' insistence that there be a referendum in occupied Western Sahara, apparently in the recognition that the vast majority of Western Saharans would vote for independence.

In short, given the history of U.S. support for its allies' land grabs and its own history of illegal invasions, this leaves the United States with little credibility to take leadership in this crisis. This in no way justifies or minimizes the seriousness of Russia's aggression, of course. However, it underscores the fact that international leadership is not just a matter of being "tough." It means being willing to abide by and defend the same international legal norms for yourself and your allies as you demand of your adversaries. Until there is such a change in policies, there is little the United States can do