Obama to Ukraine: Love and Also Tough Love

by Robert E. Hunter

When President Barack Obama meets Wednesday with the new Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk there are many things he must say regarding the crisis over Crimea. First is to reinforce some basic principles: that Ukraine’s sovereignty must be respected by everyone; that borders in Europe cannot be changed by force (or threat of force); that the Crimean Parliament’s declaration of independence is illegitimate and invalid; that the United States is taking steps, both on its own and in league with European states, to impose economic sanctions on Russia and its leaders; and that Russian President Vladimir Putin needs to choose a path of compromise and conciliation, not of confrontation and unilateral actions. In fact, some of these principles have been accepted by Russia in the past. The president also needs to repeat his rejection of next Sunday’s referendum in Crimea on whether it wants to secede from Ukraine and, the Crimean Parliament has said, to then apply to become a constituent republic of the Russian Federation.

For public consumption Obama also needs to outline the reassurances being given to NATO allies bordering on Russia, especially the three Baltic States; the steps taken by the European Union; and the diplomatic efforts the US and others in the West are taking to defuse the crisis.  He also needs to repeat the offer to have Secretary of State John Kerry visit Moscow, which has so far been sidetracked by the Kremlin.

So far, so good. But President Obama or lower-level US officials need to convey more to Prime Minister Yatsenyuk. The Ukrainian prime minister needs to understand that neither the US nor any other country will go to war over this issue and that economic sanctions against Russia will have little or no short-term impact, even if adopted by and abided by all outside countries, including all those in the European Union — which will not happen. At the same time, Obama needs to express confidence that, in the end, Russia in general and Putin in particular will be net losers. There are “existential sanctions” in the form of a collapse of trust in the Russian Federation and hence a drying up of economic opportunities in the Western world that must be based on some level of trust; and Putin himself is being discredited and thus in the longer term opportunities for Russia to take part fully in the outside world will be severely hampered. These are not Stalinist times, when the Soviet Union could choose the course of autarky. To foster prosperity at home, a requirement for anyone to remain long in power in the Kremlin, there has to be productive engagement with the outside world.

All this is cold comfort to Prime Minister Yatsenyuk’s government, but they are nonetheless facts. And the economic realities, if nothing more, create incentives for Putin to look for some way out — assuming, as is a pretty good bet, that he is rational about his and Russia’s self-interests.

Furthermore, President Obama has to convey to the Ukrainian prime minister that he and his government will be expected to play their own necessary roles. These include reaching out to the Russian-speaking, Russian-ethnic, and Russian-oriented population of Crimea and elsewhere in Ukraine and assuring them that they will have their own rights fully respected and that provisions for some autonomy will be augmented (some of these steps are already being taken). These roles include disciplining or preferably expelling members of the Ukrainian government who are ultra-nationalists, who are just playing into Putin’s hands and making matters worse.

Thus the prime minister should understand what the US and other Western states can and will do for his country and what they cannot and will not do — nor would be done by Mr. Obama’s harshest US critics if they were in power. Yatsenyuk must also understand what he and his interim government have to do and refrain from doing.

Further, President Obama needs to revert to perspectives developed two decades ago, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the inclusion of most Central European countries in NATO and the European Union (and all of them, including Russia and Ukraine, in NATO’s Partnership for Peace.) As part of President George H.W. Bush’s vision of fostering a “Europe whole and free” and at peace, then built upon by President Bill Clinton, one ambition was to abolish the concepts of balance of power and spheres of influence, both fully discredited in the 20th century. Yet geography has consigned Ukraine to a special place in a direct line between Russia and Western Europe, a locus of the three great wars of the 20th century. The objective in the 1990s, continuing today, is for Ukraine to be able to pursue a Western vocation as a free, independent, sovereign, democratic, and liberal-economic country. The same objective has also applied to Russia, if its leaders are smart enough to so choose. But trying to include Ukraine too soon into formal membership of either NATO or the EU would ignore the complex nature of its society — the Crimean people, for one, are almost all Russians and, but for an accident of history, would be in Russia, today. And such inclusion at this point would surely cause to be stillborn any reaching out to Russian to see if it also wants to develop in a liberal democratic way, with all the opportunities that come with a Western economic orientation.

Hence in 1997, NATO for its part created special arrangements with both countries: a Charter creating a Distinctive Partnership with Ukraine and a Founding Act with Russia. Both countries belong to councils that include the NATO allies, in which all parties meet as equals.

For now, however, if there is to be a chance to resume building a Europe whole and free and at peace — regrettably largely ignored by the last two US administrations, one factor leading to today’s crisis — nothing further can for now be on offer to Ukraine in terms of formal membership in either NATO or the EU. The perspective, the vision, and the efforts to make this possible in time can and must continue; a massive injection of outside aid and investment are needed immediately — and Russia can be challenged to match it, and both “with no (political) strings attached.” But “rushing fences” — trying to pull Ukraine totally into the West as Putin wants to pull at least part of it totally into the East if not also into the Russian Federation — must remain out of bounds.

This does not mean violating another cardinal principle of the 1990s: that nothing must be decided over Ukraine’s head and without its agreement; that it and its legitimate government must be full participants in any negotiations. At the same time, the current crisis can only be resolved in a way that will be acceptable to all by reverting to the efforts of two decades ago, including promptly restarting the aborted process of seeking a truly encompassing European political, economic, and security system, in addition to NATO, that can benefit all countries and penalize none.

Perhaps Putin will not play on any terms that could reasonably be offered to him. But this is the best hope for ending the current crisis and, in the process, for Russia not to be heavily damaged over the long-term by the “existential sanctions” that are already beginning to develop, unbidden, because of Putin’s high-handed and ultimately self-defeating behavior.

Photo: President Barack Obama convenes a National Security Council meeting in the Situation Room of the White House to discuss the situation in Ukraine, March 3, 2014. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza  

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.



  1. With all due respect to Mr Hunter, he should be addressing his comments to “O” and the Neocons, and perhaps the banking industry too. Meddling into other countries business, especially when the meddler[s] are adding to the woes of the people who live in those countries. And why is N.A.T.O. still relevant today? As for the E.U., they don’t seem to have their act[s] together, if they ever have. Putting the shoe on the other foot, just what would be the reaction if Russia were the only “Superpower” and wanted to stir up Canada & Mexico, like the U.S. has done in the Ukraine? As I see things developing today, I sure hope who ever has their finger[s] on the trigger, they make sure that the idiots in the government are kept far away from those triggers.

  2. “”Love”” Means installing a fascist government and handing the people over to the IMF to be robbed?
    I sure hope Mr. Obama hates my guts.

  3. Lets see the twisted, Machievellian US/EU/NATO Geo political interventions in Eastern Europe are “love”, and “tough love” ? This fellow sounds like Dr. Strangelove to me.

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