New sanctions, the U.S., Russia and the Ukraine: The smartest people in the room are blundering idiots in foreign policy

The Editorial Board of the Washington Post addressed the contradiction between Russia’s actions and whatis happening on the ground in Ukraine in terms that cut to the heart ofthe matter:

VLADIMIR PUTIN’S assault on Ukraine has been relentless and increasingly
reckless: Forces working with Russian personnel in eastern Ukraine are torturing and murdering opponents and holding international observers hostage. In contrast, President Obama’s response has been slow and excruciatingly measured. New U.S. sanctions announced Monday fall well short of the steps that senior officials threatened when the Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine began three weeks ago.

No wonder that, even as he announced them, Mr. Obama expressed skepticism that they would work. “We don’t expect there to be an immediate change in Russia’s policy,” a top aide told reporters. This official acknowledged that the United States could take steps that would impose “severe damage on the Russian economy” but was holding them back. The obvious question is: Why would the United States not aim to bring about an immediate change in Russian behavior that includes sponsorship of murder, torture and hostage-taking?

–Editorial, “Obama’s half-measures give Vladi­mir Putin little to fear,” Washington Post, April 28, 2014 (1:38 p.m. ET).

The fine-tuned “targeted sanctions” imposed on Russia by the U.S. and the West are like mosqito bites on Putin and Russia’s leaders. Meanwhile, as Europe and America debated which Step II sanctions to impose this week, Russia’s invasion with special operations forces and others under its direction and control continued to spread unrest in the eastern Ukraine, as Kiev increasingly lost authority and control in the region.

Angela Merkel is reported to have told Barack Obama, after a conversation with the Russian president, that Putin is in another world.

But in point of fact it is Barack Obama, and his extraordinarily weak foreign policy team, who are in another world. Their world is one in which a dictator who has invaded and annexed the Crimea, sent special operations teams into the eastern Ukraine to stir up and coordinate unrest and rebellion, and who has 40,000 to 80,000 troops in combat-ready status poised for an all-out invasion, will be deterred by sanctions prohibiting defense exports “that will increase the capability of the Russian military”.

Barack Obama, the highly-touted and self-proclaimed “smartest man in the room”, in foreign policy and when it comes to dealing with Russia is in fact an amateur, one of the more cluelss members of the group in the room.

His fine intellectual distinctions have had no impact in the Crimea, or now in the eastern Ukraine.

Russian decision making is not attuned to or responsive to such fine intellectual distinctions.

While Russia and its followers are assassinating opponents in the eastern Ukraine, and town after town slips from Kiev’s control–as evidenced above all by the refusal of local police to defend local leaders or buildings, or pro-Kiev demonstrators—Obama thinks of his next round of “smart sanctions” targeted at individuals and companies in Russia.

There is no strong evidence that targeted individual sanctions, alone, have ever worked. Obama is betting the future of Europe on the proposition that, with Russia and the Ukraine, they will.

Obama’s and Europe’s policy toward Russia has been flawed from the start, when they failed to react with serious economic sanctions and other measures in response to Russia’s invasion of the Crimea, and again when Russia annexed The Crimean peninsula.

As made clear in the Geneva meeting on April 17, they have signaled to Putin that they would accept a return to business as usual despite the annexation of the Crimea, provided Russia committed no further aggression in the esstern Ukraine. Their statements left the impression that only the movement of regular troops in an invasion of the eastern Ukraine would trigger real economic sanctions–the so-called “Step III” sanctions.

The slaps on the wrists that they ordered have had no apparent impact on Putin or Russian leaders.

When the tale is told by historians of how Barack Obama lost the Crimea to Russia, and then the Ukraine, the story will revolve around an incometent foreign policy team, and the deep roots of pacifism and appeasement that guide Barack Obama, and other U.S. and European decision makers.

Obama’s policy of “slap-on-the-wrist” sanctions has failed. He and Europe have failed to deter Russian intervention in the eastern Ukraine, which is currently proceeding.

Unless radical changes are immediately made in the responses of the U.S. and the West, the eastern Ukraine will soon be lost.

These are the fruits of pacifism and appeasement in the face of Russian aggression in Europe.

The Trenchant Observer

Der Scharfsinniger Beobachter
L’Observateur Incisif
El Observador Incisivo

About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.