Not long ago, Republicans were openly critical of President Obama’s handling of the crisis in Ukraine. Their argument was that Obama was projecting weakness by not responding more forcefully, presumably with some military force. Former VP Dick Cheney urged “military options”, and Senator Ted Cruz spoke of coddling and appeasing our enemies. In March, Senator John McCain said our foreign policy was “feckless”. Senator Lindsey Graham called Obama “a weak and indecisive president that invites aggression”. In May, Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn urged giving weapons to Ukraine’s military, as had McCain earlier.
A repeated Republican theme was how Russian leader Vladimir Putin was superior to Obama. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers said in March, “Putin is playing chess and I think we’re playing marbles.” One month ago, the National Review said Putin was winning in Ukraine, calling his policy there a “masterpiece”. Republicans seemed almost gleeful in their claims that the Russian aggressors were winning, perhaps because they identified with Putin, both having Obama as a common enemy.
How different things look now. Three weeks ago, Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko signed the trade agreement with the European Union that was the cause of the revolution which brought him to power. When his predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych, refused in November to sign that pact, bowing to heavy pressure from Putin, months of protests in Kiev led to the current crisis. Yanukovych fled, a new Ukrainian government was formed, and pro-Russian separatists revolted in the east.
Poroshenko’s movement back toward the EU and away from Russia is precisely what Putin, in his heavy-handed way, was trying to prevent. Moldova and Georgia, former Soviet territories that Putin has been trying to keep in a Russian orbit, also signed agreements with the EU. Poroshenko said that Ukraine would eventually become part of the EU.
Then Ukrainian forces, without American weapons, began to show some muscle. Since its creation as an independent country in 1991, Ukraine has engaged in zero military actions. It is not surprising that the Ukrainian military initially seemed unprepared to face Russian-equipped separatists led by Russian infiltrators, backed up by the threat of a Russian invasion. But two weeks ago, the separatists were driven out of a stronghold in Slavyansk by the newly muscular Ukrainian military. As they retreated to Donetsk, they blew up bridges behind them to slow down their pursuers. You can see this on YouTube. That’s a sure sign of desperation, likely to anger the local population who care about the continued functioning of their economy.
These were major setbacks for Russia, but not as serious as the latest crisis. Using Russian weapons, the separatists shot down a Malaysian passenger plane, killing 298 people, mostly Dutch citizens. Right now the shouts of “You did it,” and “No, we didn’t,” are flying back and forth, but the eventual outcome is already clear.
Unwilling to give up their anti-Obama preaching, some Republicans continue to blame him for everything. Those efforts begin at the absurd: Allen West’s rant that “298 souls on MH17 have paid the price for Obama’s ‘flexibility’”. But more mainstream Republicans kept repeating their criticisms of Obama, rather than recognizing how this incident shifts the Ukrainian situation.
On Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry offered the fullest indictment of Russian complicity: “We know for certain that the separatists have a proficiency that they’ve gained by training from Russians as to how to use these sophisticated SA-11 systems.” Evidence shows that Russia recently delivered the missiles across the border. The Ukrainian government released recordings of the separatists telephoning Russia about shooting down the plane and a video showing the missile unit returning to Russia after the plane crashed.
Putin will be playing defense for the foreseeable future. The EU, Russia’s biggest trading partner, has thus far been reluctant to follow President Obama’s lead in imposing economic sanctions. Now Germany, England and France have agreed to take a stronger stance against Russia.
It turns out that Ukraine’s military is able to push the separatists out without the provocative addition of American weapons or soldiers. It turns out that the separatists’ initial popularity in east Ukraine is not likely to last. It turns out that Obama’s patience beats Putin’s aggression. It turns out that Republicans anxious to score partisan points against the President, the same Republicans who cheered President Bush on when he invaded Iraq, offer only dangerous foreign policy ideas.
It turns out that letting the Ukrainians deal with their own crisis was the best idea of all.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, July 22, 2014