The End of Russia’s Isolation

The American Interest

David J. Kramer, President


Arch Puddington, Vice President for Research

In his May 28 speech to the U.S. Military Academy, President Obama asserted that America’s “ability to shape world opinion helped isolate Russia right away” in response to its invasion of Ukraine. Yet Vladimir Putin has hardly appeared isolated recently: He has dined with French President Francois Hollande, met other G7 leaders, and participated in last week’s commemorations for the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

Having earlier warned Putin that he needed to end his belligerence toward Ukraine, the leaders of the world’s great democracies gave him the clear impression that they would prefer to put recent tensions in the past. While Obama has talked of expanding the sanctions regime if Russia failed to end its military actions, leading European countries have resisted stronger measures. Obama began his European trip intent on reassuring Ukraine and other vulnerable European countries of the democratic world’s resolve. At the trip’s conclusion, resolve seemed in short supply, American leadership was in question, and Ukraine’s crisis had actually worsened.

As European leaders competed for space on Putin’s schedule, the forces that are laying siege to Donbass actually stepped up their attacks. Russian military veterans regularly talk to the foreign press, bragging about “brotherly assistance” and announcing plans to extend their reach over Ukrainian territory. They even showcase their advanced weaponry.

NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, General Philip Breedlove, said last week, “Russia is continuing to destabilize Ukraine…. Russian irregular forces, Russian-backed forces, and Russian financing are very active in eastern Ukraine.” He went on to describe Russia’s efforts as “very well led, very well financed, and very well organized.” Comments like these are unwelcome to European leaders eager to return to business as usual, even as the death toll from the violence mounts and Ukraine’s ability to secure its eastern borders is eroding badly.

During a joint press conference on May 2 in Washington, Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned Putin that if he disrupted the Ukrainian elections, he would trigger more sanctions. The elections, hailed widely for meeting international standards, were nonetheless badly disrupted in eastern parts of Ukraine, with many polling stations closed. Those living in Crimea, which Russia annexed in mid-March, were completely disenfranchised. No sanctions were announced, as American and European leaders seemed to accept as progress the fact that Russia had limited its disruption to Ukraine’s eastern regions.

Obama has said he wants to maintain a united U.S.-EU position and to avoid unilateral sanctions. There is no question that a unified response, including more hard-hitting sanctions, would be the preferred option—but this is highly unlikely. Obama is letting the perfect (unity with the EU) be the enemy of the good (unilateral U.S. sanctions). As was made disturbingly apparent this week, there are huge divisions among the 28 EU states. Europe’s economic ties to Russia dwarf American trade with Moscow. And as President Hollande made abundantly clear, economics trumps Ukrainian sovereignty.

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