A companion to this piece appears at Information Dissemination.
Did Obama push Russia into invading Ukraine?
As disorder continues in Ukraine’s eastern provinces, and as Russian forces remain (despite President Vladimir Putin’s comments) deployed in threatening fashion along Ukraine’s border, finger-pointing has begun in Washington.
In particular, some analysts say, the collapse of the Assad regime in the wake of the brief US bombing campaign backed Putin into a corner. Moscow bitterly denounced the campaign as “intervention run amok,” but political support and last minute arms shipments could not prevent the military coup that left Assad dead and the regime headless.
While administration spokesmen continue to argue that Syria and Ukraine are unrelated, more than a few analysts have laid responsibility squarely on the Obama administration.
“This is the fruit of Obama’s distraction with the Middle East. Putin is playing real power politics; when he’s pushed, he pushes back. It doesn’t seem that many on Obama’s foreign policy team understand this,” said one senior affiliate at a Washington think tank.
The resultant chaos in Syria may provide Moscow a degree of emotional comfort, but chances for a restoration of Russian power appear low. The collapse of the regime effectively left Russia without a Mediterranean base, especially after rebel groups stormed and destroyed Russian installations at Tartus.
The US “victory” in Syria posed a major setback for Russia, but several sources alleged that it drew US attention away from the developing situation in Ukraine. “While Obama was doing a victory lap on Syria, Putin caught him flat-footed in Ukraine,” said an advisor to a senior Republican member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Could Obama have seen the Russian move coming? In the wake of the collapse of the Libyan and Syrian governments, the loss of the Yanukovych government in Ukraine seemed eerily reminiscent of the serial collapse of Soviet satellite states in the early 1990s, a memory which remains bitter for much of the Russian leadership. “Would Putin have moved so aggressively if he didn’t feel weak and cornered? I doubt it,” said one senior Bush administration official.
Several foreign policy analysts also voiced concern over the future of Russia’s relationship with China, suggesting that the bombing of Syria might irrevocably have pushed Moscow into Beijing’s arms. “The geopolitical implications of this are gruesome. We’ve basically traded Damascus for Kiev, which doesn’t make any sense. We’ve also cemented the Russia-China axis we’ve always feared.”
Indeed, some analysts suggested that the campaign against Syria could prove fatal the Obama’s “Asian Pivot,” intended to redistribute American military and diplomatic effort towards Asia. “The lesson that Beijing learns from this is that the US can be easily distracted by the Middle East, and doesn’t have its heart in maintaining an anti-Beijing alliance system in East Asia. It doesn’t help that China now has Moscow in its corner,” said one scholar of Sino-American relations.
What could the Obama administration have done to prevent this? The President’s declaration of a “red line” on Syrian chemical weapons usage locked the United States into intervention after the determination that the Syrian military had used such weapons on civilians. Analysts interviewed for this report were nearly unanimous that stepping back after making such a declaration would have been a major blow to US credibility and reputation.
There is little doubt that the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine ended the “honeymoon” provided by the relatively successful operations in Syria and Libya. However, few of the analysts interviewed for this article suggested any easy answers for the crisis in Ukraine. At this point, military and political reality seems to leave the United States deeply constrained with respect to recovering Crimea, or to preventing further incursions into other border provinces.