Dateline Ukraine: Here Cato Institute’s Chris Preble explains the nuanced complexities of today’s Ukraine tinderbox.To get a clear handle on the best track for American Foreign Policy, read the multipart series I have prepared based on the work of Mr. Preble (Part I, Part II, Part III). And, as I regularly advise, order your personal copy of The Power Problem. The American media is strongly biased toward a hawkish approach to foreign policy. Such an approach failed America in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. As such, it is perplexing to me that Americans would today wish to re-engage in such a bankrupt foreign policy approach.
The Obama administration’s approach to events in Ukraine and the approach favored by the president’s critics are based on the same faulty premise. Both parties assume Russian President Vladimir Putin has firm control of pro-Russian forces in Ukraine. Therefore, the right combination of coercion and threats will convince him to order a retreat.
However, while pro-Russian forces in Ukraine undoubtedly enjoy Putin’s support, it is not clear that these same forces would stand down if Putin gave the order to do so. Worse, any control that Putin does have rapidly diminishes as the violence escalates.
As often happens, U.S. policymakers feel the need to do something. The policies being debated in Washington fall into two categories. Obama favors economic sanctions. Hawks push a military solution, albeit one fought through proxies.
Sanctions that would be palatable to the Europeans won’t be strong enough to compel Putin to reverse course, even if ending the conflict was within his power. And providing arms to the fragile Ukrainian government won’t solve the country’s deep political and economic dysfunction.
Obama’s approach is at least consistent with the wishes of the American people, who support sanctions against Russia but not providing arms to Ukrainians, and is less likely than his critics’ alternative to draw the United States into a conflict that no one wants.
But that’s not saying much. Considering that U.S. vital security interests are not at stake in Ukraine, the United States should not accept even a small risk of becoming more deeply involved.
Those with the most at stake — pro- and anti-Russian Ukrainians — have demonstrated their willingness to go to extremes to get what they want — namely, to get rid of their enemies. Dozens have been killed or died in violent clashes and the number of incidents appears to be on the rise.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned yesterday, “we are reaching the point of no return — a moment when the escalation cannot be stopped anymore and we literally are on the threshold of a war in Eastern Europe.”
Diplomacy can work when carrots or sticks convince the other side to act in a certain way and when there is an acceptable compromise to be had. In this case, sensible people on both sides might be willing to accept a Ukraine that is independent of foreign influence and at peace with its neighbors. But sensible people don’t control events in Ukraine right now. And the violence in eastern Ukraine is contributing to the rise of warlords who will be hard to dislodge in the future.