Responding to Crisis in Ukraine
The world was stunned by Russia’s de facto occupation of the Crimean peninsula. Some Republicans, nostalgic for the Cold War, have begun accusing the Administration of “losing” Ukraine. While events are still unfolding, Third Way is providing the following guidance on how to respond.
What to Say
Putin’s seizure of the Crimea is a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty. Only the Ukrainian people have the right to decide the fate of the nation through peaceful, free, and fair elections, without outside influence.
Last November, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich abandoned a program to more fully integrate his nation economically into the European Union, which touched off massive protests in Kiev’s central square (called the “Maidan”). By mid-January, Yanukovich cracked down—generating a backlash that led to fierce protests and scores of deaths at the hands of riot police and police snipers. But in mid-February, Yanukovich signed an agreement for early Presidential elections under pressure from the protestors and their parliamentary allies, after which he fled to Russia.
A few days later, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced military exercises on the Ukrainian-Russian border. Meanwhile, masked gunmen wearing Russian uniforms began taking control—without a shot being fired—of the Crimean peninsula’s parliament, airports, government buildings, and major roads. Ukraine’s interim government said Russia had declared war on Ukraine. On March 6th, Crimea’s parliament proclaimed it wanted to join Russia, although the vote was held while armed gunmen surrounded the building. The region will be holding a popular referendum on this topic March 16th.
Some Republicans have been faulting the Administration’s handling of the crisis, claiming that Putin’s aggression is the result of a “weak” foreign policy and calling on the Administration to show “strength.” This simplistic formulation ignores the history of the crisis in Ukraine, the course of the President’s actions, and the complexity that the Administration must navigate.
Accusation: Obama’s weakness caused/permitted Putin to invade Ukraine.
Reality: Russia’s aggression in the former Soviet republics goes on regardless of who is President in the US. Suggesting otherwise is to excuse Putin for starting this conflict.
Russia has been using its military to claim territory through virtually every American administration since the breakup of the Soviet Union. In 1992, during the first Bush Administration, Russian troops invaded Moldova to create a breakaway province known as Transnistria. From 1992-1993, under the Bush and Clinton Administrations, Russia was engaged in a conflict in Georgia over a region known as Abkhazia. In 2008, during the second Bush Administration, Russia (under Putin) invaded Georgia to gain control of an area known as South Ossetia.
Accusation: Obama’s not doing enough to confront Putin.
Reality: President Obama is already doing everything the Republicans have suggested, and no one wants to start a war.
The Obama Administration’s response to the crisis in Ukraine is remarkably similar to the Bush Administration’s response to Russia’s invasion of Georgia.1 And most of what the hawks have demanded already has come to pass. The Wall Street Journal called for additional warships to be sent to the region, which President Obama already has ordered.2 Some Republicans called for additional sanctions on Russia. The President issued3 an Executive Order that authorizes the Treasury Department to freeze the assets of people or groups that are:
- Undermining Ukrainian democracy or institutions;
- Threatening Ukraine’s peace, security, stability, sovereignty, or territorial integrity;
- Misappropriating Ukrainian state assets; or
- Asserting authority over any part of Ukraine without authority from Kiev.
The American people do not support taking more aggressive action, or sending U.S. troops.4 They understand that President Obama is taking the steps he can, within the bounds of our strategic interests, to punish Putin and the other bad actors in Russia.