The roots of Obama's folly on Russia and Ukraine

The Obama administration's lofty, vacuous, self-indulgent folly over Russia and Ukraine has deep roots, and you just need to look at some of the early speeches to see how deep the roots of that folly go

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Obama in Moscow, July 2009
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Charles Crawford
On 6 May 2014 09:13

Let’s hop back to 7 July 2009. President Obama is addressing New Economic School students in Moscow, his first major speech to a Russian audience since his election. Vice President Biden will soon be in Ukraine to spell out the new Administration’s policies there too.

As Ukraine some 240 weeks later slumps into something looking horribly like a nascent civil war, how do the keynote speeches made by US leaders then now read?

What’s strange (and strangely bad) about President Obama’s speech that day is just how intellectually empty it was. Look how he describes the end of the Cold War:

You are the last generation born when the world was divided. At that time, the American and Soviet armies were still massed in Europe, trained and ready to fight…

And then, within a few short years, the world as it was ceased to be. Now, make no mistake: This change did not come from any one nation. The Cold War reached a conclusion because of the actions of many nations over many years, and because the people of Russia and Eastern Europe stood up and decided that its end would be peaceful.

Well, that’s one vapid way of looking at it. But why not say at least something about the moral and political consequences of communism and the brutish Russian imperialism it represented? And spell out the huge and generous efforts the United States and its NATO allies have been doing to help Russia through the ensuing transition? And what tough reforms still need to be done?

Instead the President stresses that America wants a ‘strong, peaceful and prosperous Russia’, and makes a bold and (it turns out) dramatically incorrect assertion:

There is the 20th century view that the United States and Russia are destined to be antagonists, and that a strong Russia or a strong America can only assert themselves in opposition to one another. And there is a 19th century view that we are destined to vie for spheres of influence, and that great powers must forge competing blocs to balance one another.

These assumptions are wrong. In 2009, a great power does not show strength by dominating or demonizing other countries. The days when empires could treat sovereign states as pieces on a chess board are over.

No they’re not. As we now see, Russia has illegally annexed Crimea and is now busy destabilising huge tracts of eastern Ukraine, justifying its actions in part by the supposedly aggressive expansion of NATO.

President Obama aims to explain US policy in this especially sensitive security area:

State sovereignty must be a cornerstone of international order. Just as all states should have the right to choose their leaders, states must have the right to borders that are secure, and to their own foreign policies. That is true for Russia, just as it is true for the United States. Any system that cedes those rights will lead to anarchy.

That's why we must apply this principle to all nations -- and that includes nations like Georgia and Ukraine. America will never impose a security arrangement on another country.

For any country to become a member of an organization like NATO, for example, a majority of its people must choose to; they must undertake reforms; they must be able to contribute to the Alliance's mission. And let me be clear: NATO should be seeking collaboration with Russia, not confrontation.

Fine. But what if Russia is seeking confrontation, not collaboration, with NATO? What if Russia just does not accept this breezy, kumbayesque way of looking at the former Soviet space?

In Kiev two weeks later Vice-President Biden after his meeting with then Ukrainian President Yushchenko was giving a necessarily different emphasis:

President Obama and I have stated clearly that if you choose to be part of Euro-Atlantic integration -- which I believe you have -- we strongly support that. We do not recognize -- and I want to reiterate it -- any sphere of influence. We do not recognize anyone else's right to dictate to you or any other country what alliances you will seek to belong to or what relationships -- bilateral relationships you have.

President Obama made it clear in his visit to Moscow this month: the United States supports Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence and freedom, and to make its own choices including what alliances they choose to belong (sic).

That, translated into Russian, means “If Ukraine wants to join NATO, that’s none of Moscow’s damn’ business”.

In short, right from the start the Obama Administration presented a policy face to Moscow and Kiev that was at best naively over-nuanced and at worst misleading. This was no accident. There was a real policy dilemma in play: how to help those former Soviet republics reform themselves when such reforms involve dismantling Soviet-era structures and colossal post-Soviet-era corruption that have links going right into the Kremlin?

NATO membership is especially important. It is not widely understood that one of the worst ‘deep’ features of the Soviet Union was the fact that the Soviet Army ran its own aggressive intelligence services in parallel with the KGB.

Rooting out these people and networks has proved to be one of the hardest challenges of post-communist reform in all the former Warsaw Pact countries; without NATO membership and the accompanying tough political and procedural reforms of the relationship between military structures and civilian accountability, it is highly unlikely that (say) Poland would be where it is now.

This is why it is existentially important for Ukraine and other former Soviet republics to move closer to the NATO way of doing things if they want to have substantive democracy.

And, in turn, why Moscow under current management is so determined that that should not happen: the networks of almost impenetrable patronage, coercion and corruption that come from unreformed military structures across the former Soviet space are key tools for maintaining direct Russian influence.

Thus we should roundly denounce those footling useless idiots in our midst who clamour that it is ‘obvious’ that NATO enlargement was a provocative threat to ‘legitimate’ Russian interests. The whole point is that some of those interests are real enough, but that they are 100% not legitimate in any meaningful sense of the word.

The speeches by President Obama and Vice-President Biden back in 2009 now read awfully because they glossed over the real issues in play. In their not unworthy attempt to strike an unfailingly positive tone, they did not give the Kremlin in particular a frank, hard-headed look at what still needed to be done to work together to clean up Europe after the Cold War, or chart a clear course on how Russia’s - and Ukraine’s - fair security concerns might best be met.

240 dismal weeks later, the US and wider NATO/Western approach those speeches articulated is in ruins. But, worse, nothing new or remotely convincing is appearing to replace it.

A horrible textbook example of lofty vacuous self-indulgent speechwriting pretending to be policy.

Charles Crawford is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. A former British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw, he is now a private consultant and writer. Crawford's piece has also been submitted to Pundit Wire. His website is www.charlescrawford.biz. He tweets @charlescrawford

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