Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ukraine affords Obama the opportunity to look strong

The crisis in Ukraine has been repeatedly linked to the conflict in Syria. Both have had a significant impact on Russian power, and both have been a test for American influence in the world. But events in Ukraine may well affect Syria in contradictory ways.

Russia has defended the regime of President Bashar Al Assad on the grounds that it is the legitimate government of Syria, and that its collapse might break the country apart. This was a clear statement of the sovereignty principle, which Russia has ignored in Ukraine.

Similarly, Russia’s justification for violating Ukraine’s sovereignty is that it fears for the Russian population in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. But in Syria Mr Al Assad’s foes have employed a similar argument, backing the Syrian opposition in defence of a Sunni population repressed by an Alawite-dominated regime.

Consistency is rarely a deciding factor for powerful nations, and President Vladimir Putin’s actions are no exception. These may increase tension with the United States and even China, a staunch defender of state sovereignty, but ultimately national interests will prevail. The Europeans, Germany above all, have limited options against Mr Putin, given their economic ties with Russia.

However, Russian-American dynamics are a different matter. This is a Congressional election year for Barack Obama, and the American president must counter his growing reputation for indecisiveness in foreign affairs. To his advantage, he leads a more isolationist country than many of his predecessors. Yet Mr Obama also cannot allow the perpetuation of a sense that his administration is spineless.

That means that Washington must get Ukraine right. Mr Obama doesn’t have the luxury of ignoring the crisis there as he has ignored the war in Syria. One reason is that Ukraine is an overt test of those foreign policy principles Mr Obama has claimed as his own.

When he came to office, the American president underlined that his administration would adopt a realist approach in its interactions overseas, based on the pursuit of national interests. At the same time, Mr Obama promised to emphasise multilateralism and cooperation, which included a “reset” in the American-Russian relationship.

There was natural tension between the first part of those propositions and the second. The pursuit of interests usually means taking a hard-nosed approach to foreign policy challenges, while multilateralism implies a vision that is more collaborative.

Mr Putin is a realist, and has not hesitated to use force when he feels that this is to Russia’s advantage. Mr Obama, in turn, has shied away from deploying American military power, while his reliance on a multilateral approach has brought him few benefits in the world’s trouble spots, above all Syria and Ukraine.

In Syria, the Russians have not given an inch in their support for Mr Al Assad’s regime. Yet their approval remains necessary to achieve any diplomatic breakthrough. The standoff today makes a political solution more distant than ever. Mr Al Assad may be delighted that he is unlikely to pay a price for an international consensus over Syria, but many will lament that this means the war is bound to continue.

However, is that necessarily true? Mr Obama may finally come to accept that the policy he has pursued until now, which involves engaging Russia to help resolve the Syrian war, has utterly failed. This will have a particular bearing as the deadline approaches for the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons – in a deal negotiated between Washington and Moscow and endorsed by the United Nations.

An interim February 5 deadline to remove chemical weapons from Syria has come and gone. It is highly improbable that the June 30 deadline to destroy all such weapons will be respected. At a recent closed-door meeting of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague, Russia defended Mr Al Assad’s regime, saying it needed more time, even as other states condemned the Syrians for their delaying tactics.

Mr Obama will have a tough decision to take if Syria retains much of its chemical arsenal after June 30. Russia neutralised an American military response in Syria last year, but now the president may have to reconsider his position on military force. Tensions with Moscow may prompt him to bomb Syria, both to give credibility to the chemical weapons agreement and to put Mr Putin on the defensive.

Above all, Mr Obama will have to think seriously about his own political destiny. He faces a dilemma of sorts. Many Americans have embraced his reluctance to enter into fresh conflicts, and opposed his threat last year to strike Syria after the chemical weapon attack in the Ghouta. When it comes to foreign policy, Mr Obama’s vacillation abroad has not cost him much domestically.

Yet Ukraine is not Syria. Mr Putin’s manoeuvres remind many Americans of the Cold War. So, if Mr Obama responds in such a way that he appears weak, this could erode the president’s authority at a time when he is already contested for a variety of domestic reasons. If Democrats were to lose in November as a consequence, Mr Obama’s agenda would be crippled during his final two years in office.

The US-Russia rift makes a political endgame in Syria elusive. But, paradoxically, this rift may also hinder a resolution of the chemical weapons controversy, obliging Mr Obama to resort to force, in accordance with his purported realism. That, in turn, might break the ugly stalemate in Syria, facilitating a political outcome.

Will Mr Putin pay a heavy price for his takeover of Crimea? It’s too early to tell. However, the Russian president had Washington just where he wanted it in Syria. That may change as Mr Obama reconsiders his options globally. Mr Putin has not left him with many.

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