1) U.S. credibility—already damaged—is at stake.
In Syria, President Obama’s actions belied his claim that “I mean what I say.” Obama waited almost six months after the breakout of unrest in Syria before calling, in August of 2011, for Bashar al-Assad to go, yet Assad remains in power today, two and a half years later. Obama set a “red line” on the movement or use of chemical weapons, and then, once those weapons were used, claimed that he never set a red line at all. After waiting weeks and weeks after the use of chemical weapons, Obama first declared his intention to use force against the Syrian regime (force that likely would have been more symbolic than effective), then abruptly sought Congressional authorization for the use of force—authorization that Congress was predictably unwilling to grant. And then, after Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking extemporaneously, offered Syria an out that Bashar al-Assad grabbed, Obama agreed to hold off on using force in exchange for the Syrian regime abandoning its chemical weapons. (Assad, unsurprisingly, continues to delay on that front, while continuing to kill civilians as the diplomatic process goes nowhere.)
Now, in Ukraine, Obama has again laid out a strong rhetorical position. On Friday, he warned, “There will be costs to any military intervention in Ukraine.” Russia promptly invaded anyway, to the surprise of the U.S. intelligence community; the Washington Post declared that “Rarely has a threat from a U.S. president been dismissed as quickly—and comprehensively—as Obama’s Friday night warning to Russian President Vladimir Putin.” On Saturday, Obama harangued Putin by phone for 90 minutes, with the White House’s readout proclaiming that Obama “expressed his deep concern over Russia’s clear violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, which is a breach of international law,” that “The United States condemns Russia’s military intervention into Ukrainian territory,” and that the U.S. “calls on Russia to de-escalate tensions by withdrawing its forces back to bases in Crimea and to refrain from any interference elsewhere in Ukraine.” Russia’s refusal to pull back, Obama warned, “would negatively impact Russia’s standing in the international community…[and] lead to greater political and economic isolation.”
If Obama follows through on his words and impose severe, increasing, and unyielding pressure on Russia unless and until it withdraws from the Ukraine, U.S. credibility could improve in the world. But if Obama again fails to follow through on his words with actions, our credibility will deteriorate even further.
2) Ukraine affects Iran.
President Obama has declared an objective—no Russian presence in Ukraine—and pledged U.S. support to achieve it. If Obama does not keep his promises on Ukraine, why should anyone believe him on Iran? Two years ago, at AIPAC’s Policy Conference, Obama proclaimed that “Iran’s leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And as I have made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests.” When Secretary Kerry speaks to AIPAC tomorrow night, under the shadow of a problematic Iran nuclear interim agreement and now the Ukraine crisis, he will have a hard time convincing over 10,000 AIPAC delegates—not to mention Iran and the world—that the President will stand by and follow through on his promises of two years ago. As Omri Ceren, senior advisor at The Israel Project, recently tweeted, “Seriously though, Kerry isn’t going to tell AIPAC–this week of all weeks–to put faith in [the U.S. intelligence community] + diplo[matic] credibility is he?”
3) Russia can do what it wants in Ukraine if it’s willing to pay the price.
Russia is willing to use force to occupy at least part of Ukraine; the U.S. and its allies are not willing to use force to drive Russia out. If Moscow is prepared to endure at least temporary international isolation and sanctions, it will enjoy freedom of action in Ukraine.
4) Russia’s actions in Ukraine represent continuity, not change, in Russian foreign policy.
Under Putin, Russia has invaded and occupied parts of Georgia, used Russian energy resources to blackmail the E.U. and Ukraine, continued to aid the Iranian and Syrian regimes, and sheltered American fugitive Edward Snowden. There never was a true “reset” in U.S.-Russian relations—the U.S. provided carrots to Russia, while Moscow continued with business as usual, including the invasion of Ukraine.
5) On second thought, make that just four points—for now.