On the last day of February and first day of March, Russia’s mendacious foreign and defense ministers told their credulous U.S. counterparts that Russia had every intention of respecting Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity. Of course, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is virtually the poster child for Henry Wotton’s famous definition of a diplomat as someone sent abroad to lie for his country. Russian assurances to their U.S. counterparts during the war in Georgia in 2008 were equally deceitful. Lavrov’s duplicity during the Georgia war negotiations that year was so outrageous that French president Nicolas Sarkozy, according to witnesses, at one point grabbed him by the lapels and called him a liar to his face.
The crisis in Georgia was a serious matter but unfortunately came in the midst of an American presidential election and at the tail end of an administration that was both physically and psychologically exhausted after seven years of war. The serious but unsuccessful effort to impose costs on Russia was complicated by the fact that Georgia’s impetuous president, Misha Saakashvili, had ignored U.S. cautions, risen to the bait, and carelessly stepped into the trap set for him by Vladimir Putin. When Bush administration witnesses testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in September 2008 (full disclosure: the author was one of the witnesses), some Democrats on the committee, notably including then New York senator Hillary Clinton, hinted darkly at a Bush administration conspiracy that had somehow orchestrated the war (implicitly to assist John McCain’s presidential election campaign), although her own experience appears to have soured her a bit on Putin.
After the Obama team took over, its members demonstrated minimal sympathy for the Georgians (who were facing their own internal political problems) since any close attention to Russia’s continued violations of the agreements that ended the war would detract from the new administration’s efforts to “reset” relations with Russia. Although Secretary of State John Kerry now has virtually denied there ever was a “reset” policy, it was aimed at securing Russian support for the president’s overriding nonproliferation objectives, particularly with regard to Iran, and at securing Russian support for the U.S. effort in Afghanistan, specifically the northern distribution route for supplying NATO forces (later, Russian support on Syria would be added to the list). The purchase price for this was scaling back U.S. missile defense efforts in Central Europe and a sweetheart deal in the New START Treaty, which required the United States to dismantle nuclear force structure while allowing Russia to build up its strategic nuclear forces to the agreed treaty levels while totally ignoring Russian theater nuclear weapons.
The administration’s failed efforts at reset are now obvious for all but the most deluded to see. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine presents the United States and its European allies with what is commonly conceded to be the biggest test of European security since the end of the wars of the Yugoslav succession in 1999. As was the case in Georgia, there will be a strong temptation to find a face-saving agreement that papers over Putin’s gains in order to trumpet the “success” of a negotiated, diplomatic outcome and allow the international community to return to its normal torpor. It can’t be said enough that any outcome that allows Putin to wrest either Crimea or other parts of Ukraine from Kiev’s control should not be acceptable. He should not be allowed to maintain the ill-gotten gains of his aggression. As Obama’s former NATO ambassador has said, “this isn’t just about Crimea. This is about who is ultimately in control of Ukraine.”
Why does Ukraine matter so much?
First, it matters because—despite Putin’s risible claims of anti-Russian violence in Crimea and eastern Ukraine (even Angela Merkel reportedly told President Obama that she thinks Putin is “in another world”)—this is military aggression against a neighboring independent state in the heart of Europe that violates the U.N. Charter and the Helsinki Final Act. Moreover, the pretext upon which it is based, protection of Russian national minorities in Ukraine, could also be used against NATO member states like Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and under Article 5 of the NATO treaty, “an armed attack against one [member state] . . . shall be considered an attack against them all.” The future viability of the alliance is at stake here.