The Broader Implications of the Debate over Ukraine

by Robert E. Hunter

This Monday, President Barack Obama met for six hours with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The number one issue was what to do about Russian aggression against Ukraine. The result was an agreement between the American and German leaders.

At least that is what their press conference statements were designed to convey. Merkel reassured everyone that “we have been in very, very close contact with the United States of America and Europe on sanctions, on diplomatic initiatives….[T]hat’s, indeed, one of the most important messages we…need to send to Russia.” Obama emphasized that “Russian aggression has only reinforced the unity of the United States and Germany and our allies and partners around the world…[and] no matter what we decide [about supplying lethal weapons to Ukraine or other steps], the alliance between the United States and Europe will continue to stand.”

Although the two leaders seemed to be singing a duet, they were both whistling past the graveyard. In fact, Merkel made clear at the Munich Security Conference over the weekend (where I was present) that “I cannot imagine any situation in which improved equipment for the Ukrainian army leads to President Putin being so impressed that he believes he will lose militarily.” Meanwhile at Monday’s joint press conference with Merkel, Obama said that he asked his team to look at all options “and the possibility of lethal defensive weapons is one of those options that’s being examined.”

Often in relations between allies, such differences regarding tactics would be seen as just that—tactics. But in this case far more is at stake, not just in regard to Russia and Ukraine but also to the constantly evolving nature of US-European relations. Then there are the internal dynamics of European countries themselves to consider, particularly around issues of security and foreign policy. Unity has been scarce on all these fronts.

Ever since the end of the Cold War deprived the West of an enemy, as a Soviet Washington-watcher once said, some of the glue has softened in the Western alliance. That was perfectly natural, given that the Cold War was more an aberration than a historical rule. But with the crisis over Ukraine, the ability of the alliance to implement common policies, even where there is general agreement over objectives, is being called into question.

Challenging the Transatlantic Alliance

This is a particularly difficult moment. For one thing, Russian President Vladimir Putin would dearly like to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe (and between various European countries), first by incorporating the Crimean peninsula and now by sending “little green men” to seize significant areas of Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, with impossible-to-deny Russian military support. In the words of Vice President Joseph Biden in his Munich speech: “You’ve seen the pictures, as they say.”

It’s impossible to know how far Putin is prepared to go. This Wednesday, the leaders of Germany, France, Ukraine, and Russia are scheduled to meet in Minsk to see whether diplomacy can produce a cease-fire. The West is hoping that Putin will agree to honor the spirit (if not all the letters) of last September’s Minsk Protocol, which the Russian-backed Ukraine separatists began violating before the ink had hardly dried. And indeed, Putin may simply try to buy more time with another agreement he will not honor.

This puts the allies, and especially President Obama, in a difficult position. Unfortunatately their relationship with one another is potentially under increased strain because of the actions of a foreign leader over whom they have little if any direct influence. Merkel and France’s President Francois Hollande will propose—with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko anxiously at their elbows—but Putin will dispose. For the United States, billed as the world’s sole superpower, this is more than just uncomfortable.

The United States and its two key European allies—Germany (leading) and France (trailing)— disagree over whether to provide lethal arms to Ukraine unless Putin compromises in Minsk on Wednesday. This potentially major divergence has broader implications.

It’s not the first time in recent years that the United States has had intense disagreements with at least some of its major European allies. In 2003, Germany and France vigorously opposed the US-led invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the destructive consequences of which are still felt in a broad range of Western interests and by the people of several Middle East countries. Two years ago, the “Snowden Affair” added strains in US-German relations when leaks revealed that the US National Security Agency was even tapping Chancellor Merkel’s phone calls. This matter, which eroded the German government’s trust, has now receded into the background, but it still came up at the Markel-Obama press conference this week. As Obama acknowledged: “There’s no doubt that the Snowden revelations damaged impressions of Germans with respect to the U.S. government and our intelligence cooperation.”

The Stakes with Iran

Meanwhile, the risks of further strained US-German relations—along with US relations with some other European allies—have another Middle East dimension. For years, virtually all the European allies have fervently hoped that nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 countries—the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany—will succeed and thus avoid what is popularly called a “train wreck.” Although the West agrees that Iran must not be permitted to develop nuclear weapons—Iran claims that it only wants to continue what it calls a peaceful nuclear program—the consequences of failed negotiations are unknowable.

They now face a formal deadline of June 30. In Munich, Secretary of State John Kerry said: “The only chance I can see of an extension at this point in time would be that you really have the outlines of the agreement, but if we’re not able to make the fundamental decisions that have to be made over the course of the next weeks, literally, I think it would be impossible to extend.” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said more-or-less the same thing at Munich.

Both Kerry and Zarif had extensive talks “on the margins” of the Munich Conference, giving rise to hopes that this common perception of the process will lead to an ultimate agreement. In this case, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will make the key decision on the Iranian side. “I would go along with any agreement that could be made. Of course, if it is not a bad deal,” he said this past Sunday. This does not mean a deal is in the offing, even if the leaderships of Iran and the United States agree.

In the United States, the key to success may lie less with President Obama than with Congress, where major voices are still pressing for more sanctions on Iran. These voices have enlisted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, without gaining the approval of the White House beforehand, to speak to a joint session of Congress on March 3. Even if Netanyahu and his US supporters are not able to ruin a deal, they could sow so much doubt in Iran about whether the next US president would continue to honor a deal—and, before that, whether Congress will limit the president’s ability to remove sanctions on Iran—that Khamenei and company will decide that it would, indeed, be a “bad deal.”

Obama Besieged

This demonstration that the US president may not be master in his own (foreign policy) house does not go down well in Europe, even in Germany, with its special ties to Israel. It is also of a piece with the squabble over whether to send lethal arms to the Ukrainian government. All this was very much on display in Munich. Although Obama had been clear in his skepticism about sending lethal arms to Ukraine—which put him in the same policy camp as Merkel—three Republican senators at the conference, as part of a larger congressional delegation, publicly criticized both the chancellor and Germany in general for not supporting their call for arms.

I can think of no other occasion when sitting members of Congress, while travelling abroad, have so directly taken on not just the leader of an allied nation on his or her home ground but also the US president. The informal rule against such behavior is designed in part to show the world that the United States has only one foreign policy leader at a time, whichever party holds the White House. By violating that rule, these senators only reinforced the current misgivings about the capacity of the Obama administration to be able to do what it believes is best for US (and allied) interests in the world and to make it stick, both against outside leaders who seek to interfere in US domestic politics (Netanyahu) and members of Congress who try to arrogate to themselves the role of commander-in-chief. Allies, especially the Germans, can see that this pressure is working, for the US president had seemed to shift his ground on the lethal-weapons-for-Ukraine issue by the time of his summit with Merkel.

The problem is compounded by what many Europeans see as a lack of solid foreign policy leadership by the Obama administration in more than one part of the world, but especially on the issue of Ukraine. NATO allies sent troops to Afghanistan during the last decade as part of an implicit bargain: the United States was to remain pinned to Europe, for the precise purpose of dealing with Russia if its behavior rendered that necessary. Putin’s behavior has since rendered that necessary, and many Europeans wonder what happened to the US part of the bargain. At the same time, however, Europeans have noted with approbation the efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry in trying to forge a deal with Iran, and this was made clear at Munich.

Nevertheless, a notable absence in discussions, particularly on Ukraine and Russia, were two words that have been a staple of the Munich Security Conference over the last five decades and hence of the Western alliance: “American leadership.” If the Obama administration does not remedy this situation, the United States and its allies will eventually have to pay the price.

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. America and its allies will have to pay the price. What a bleak outlook the U.S. is facing, especially since the Congress has decided to go all out in embarrassing the “O”. If the U.S. didn’t try playing games in the Ukraine, which have backfired, there wouldn’t be any need for further action. But of course, the U.S. just has to play, but who’s running the show? I guess this is what we can expect for the next 2 years, seeing that the gates of the asylum have been thrown open. As for Iran, well, wait and see how that turns out. One thing is sure, if the E.U. gets nuked and Iran too, all bets are off as to who will be left standing.

  2. “This puts the allies, and especially President Obama, in a difficult position.”
    Oh come on. This whole affair was instigated and initiated by the US when it supported the coup against a democratically elected government in Kiev, thus threatening Russia interests. The ethnic Russians in Crimea and Donbass were threatened by the Nazi-backed junta in Kyev and declared independence. It was not a case of raw Russian aggression. It’s rather a case of the human rights of the ethnic Russians in Ukraine.

    Let’s look at history. The US supported Saigon after a coup it instigated there, in its declaration of independence from Hanoi, leading to the Vietnam War. And now the US is putting on its holier-than-thou act against Moscow.

    Obama in a difficult Position? After Nuland said “F**k the EU?” I don’t think so.

  3. The *Narrow Implications* one might have titled it better. Wishful thinking!

    Because 1. There was no agreement between the EU and Obama, and because 2. There is no Russian aggression.

    For all the satellites and massively funded NATO / USA spying, there is no, there is ZERO proof of Russian participation in the Ukraine civil war. The SE militias are just that, MILITIAs – they are almost 100% SE men who formerly worked in the mines and the industries of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and who, although Ukrainian technically, are Russians ethnically as this area was Russian-settled since the time of Catherine the Great. They get weapons from the freely available stores that sell Russian weapons and other gear. This is NOT Russian aggression, this is free men reacting with their best efforts to get the Galician (West Ukrainian) majority to allow them to have their own language and culture in safety.

    America is supporting the West Ukrainians who -in part- have a military with ties to the battalions that supported Hitler in WW II (LOOK IT UP).

    Merkel and in particular Sarkozy and other French officials have said -apart from the talks- that they think the USA supplying arms to those West Ukrainians is counter-productive. LOOK IT UP.

    The Main Street Media in the USA laps up the idea of Russian Aggression, unsubtantiated, with great appetite, simply because, in the excercise of repetition, it hits home. Goebbels was right.

    And ascribing all to Putin! Putin “would dearly like to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe” … is wholly false. Putin no doubt is worried somewhat that the US is so vehemently opposed to a healthy Russia, but is far more concerned that all goes well with his new relations with China and other Brics countries. Who drives a wedge between the US and Europe is the USA – it’s unreasoning ideas to punish any that would thwart aims like getting NATO into Ukraine and that way into striking distance of the heart of Russia are not welcome in France and Germany because they have BUSINESS with Russia, which they lose from the USA’s aggression. Famously, the guilty accuse their opponents with their own failings and this is precisely true of America. America has hundreds of foreign military establishments – Russia, not one. LOOK IT UP.

    America is the villain of the piece, as will be told by everyone once the petrodollar is overcome by the BRICS national currencies. This, by the way, although he is not the author of the program, is something that Putin, who is a very responsible and would-you-believe it, a very Christian gentleman, is more likely to be interested in. And if one was to monitor Russian opinion, it would seem that war would not intimidate them. When they see their fellow Russians being targetted by West Ukrainian artillery -the civilians have been especially targetted in Ukraine’s attempt to `pacify’ the SE- they get angry. And brave.

  4. 1836: Texas, part of Mexico until then, declares independence.

    1845: Texas joins the U.S. as the 28th state. It has a large population who identify with Americans, speak English, lean toward America and strike up a powerful relationship.

    1846: Mexico doesn’t like it, declares war on Texas and invades. As the result of this folly, despite some initial Mexican gains, America enters the war, badly and completely defeats Mexico, takes over huge chunks of Mexican territory which are now part of America and, while Mexicans remember that event, today it’s an established fact and there is nothing they can do about that. Folly is what it was.

    Now we have a similar situation in Ukraine. Eastern Ukraine is analogous to Texas, Western Ukraine is analogous to Mexico of 1845, and Russia is analogous to the United States’ position back then.

    Lesson 1: Don’t repeat the folly because, not that I side with Russians, despite Russia’s inferior technology, smaller economy, worse social conditions, I can guaranty you Russia is going to win that conflict, Russia is going to take over large chunks of Ukraine beyond the territory that the separatists have their eyes on now, and Russia will end up in a better position for the next 50 years just like Russia ended up the winner of WWII and Eastern Europe over the course of the Cold War.

    Lesson 2: What motivated Mexicans to enter the war of 1846 was their gross overestimation of their own righteousness, power and commitment and a huge underestimation of Texan’s commitment to the cause and America’s relentless and rising power. It doesn’t take a genius to see the limits of the American power in that part of the world. What are we going to do when we escalate and Putin doesn’t back down, go to war with Putin over a slice of Ukraine that’s populated by ethnic Russians? Is it worth the many thousands/millions of American lives over here? Are we really, seriously going to risk WW||| and the end of the world because John McCain wants to make up for his defeat in Vietnam or because our rightwingers are at it again with their macho talk? The lesson is: don’t overestimate yourself or underestimate your enemy.

    Lesson 3: Learn from history because the one who repeats the mistake is considered twice the fool.

  5. John-Albert Eadie, youre showing a brilliant russian tactic here: deny-deny-deny…. Man its a Classic.

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