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A Feeble Stance on Russian Aggression

by Laurie Ann Mylroie, Ph.D.Ukraine Map

Despite Ukraine’s September 5 cease-fire, a “protracted conflict” continues in the East, the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human Rights warned Wednesday.  Over 3,600 people have been killed in fighting since April, with nearly 10% of those fatalities occurring since the cease-fire.  Rebels continue to fight for control of key sites, including the Donetsk airport, while Russian forces have increased their presence east of Mariupol, raising concern that rebels plan to launch a new offensive against that strategic port city or even to establish a land bridge to Crimea.  Meanwhile, the separatists are using the relative lull to solidify their hold over their self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, replete with their own nascent KGB.  As the U.N. noted, “Armed groups continued to terrorize the population in areas under their control, pursuing killings, abductions, torture, ill-treatment and other serious human rights abuses.”

Yet President Barack Obama seems in a state of deep denial.  In late September, he told CBS’ 60 Minutes, “Because of American leadership, we have been able to impose a cost on Mr. Putin. We’ve put together sanctions that have hurt their economy, that have given them pause. We now are in a situation in which a ceasefire has been brokered.”  He repeated that on Tuesday, as he touted his accomplishments to the Democratic National Committee, “When it came to blunting Russian aggression, it was the United States that mobilized NATO countries and the world community to stand up for the principle that people are independent and have the ability to make their own decisions about their own lives and to seek freedom and prosperity on their own terms.”  Yet that same day, Russian president Vladimir Putin celebrated his 62nd birthday with a sojourn in the Siberian forest, as his approval rating stood above 80%—twice that of Obama’s.

The Ukrainian population holds a far more realistic—and pessimistic—view of Putin and his intentions, according to results obtained last month by the Canadian technology and data collection company, RIWI.  These data also suggest that there is much more of an opportunity to counter Russian aggression than that offered by the limited policies that have been pursued by the U.S. and its European allies.

Throughout Ukraine, there was generally stronger support for Kiev than Moscow, RIWI found.  In response to the question, “Do you think Russian President Putin is ever honest when he asks for a ceasefire?,” 65% of all respondents said ‘no,’ while 17% said ‘yes,’ with the remainder undecided.  In the East, a plurality of 46% said ‘no’; 31% said ‘yes’; and 23% were undecided.

Thus, even in the East, strong suspicion of Putin exists.  However, responses from the East were marked by a relatively large percentage of undecided.  In combination with the higher percentage of pro-rebel/Russian sentiment, that suggests a different picture exists there than in the rest of Ukraine.  In the East, a majority—54%—either thought that Putin was honest in asking for a cease-fire or were undecided.  Thus, in their majority, residents of Eastern Ukraine were not hostile to Russia’s position.

Similarly, in response to the question, “Should Ukraine be part of Russia,” 63% of those in non-Eastern regions said ‘no.’  In the East, 40% said ‘no,’ and only 26% said ‘yes,’ but 34% were undecided.  Thus, the East was open to becoming part of Russia.  The same pattern was repeated with the questions, “Should ownership of the Eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk be negotiated with Russia?” and “Should a separate new Eastern state be created in Ukraine?”  A plurality of opinion in the East opposed the pro-Russian position, but the pro-Russian position in combination with the undecided was a majority.  In these circumstances, force and intimidation can be used to neutralize opposition and turn indifference into passive support.

However, just as the large number of undecided in the East suggests an openness to the pro rebel/Russian position, the same figures suggest an openness to the pro-Kiev position, even on sensitive issues implying continued conflict and hardship for civilians.  In the East, 31% said ‘no,’ when asked, “Should Ukraine stop fighting on its own?;” 24% were undecided.  Asked, “Should the U.S, provide arms and munitions to Ukraine?,” 36% said ‘yes’, while 21% were undecided.

Yet it is Obama’s fixed policy to limit the U.S. response to Russian aggression.  The U.S. has provided non-lethal support to Ukraine’s military, but Obama refuses lethal support.  In mid-September, when Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko visited Washington, he made an impassioned appeal before the U.S. Congress for such aid: “one cannot win the war with blankets.  Even more we cannot keep the peace with a blanket.”  Not only did the White House decline Poroshenko’s request, it was reportedly annoyed by his temerity in making his country’s urgent needs so publicly known.

Does Obama really believe that the Western powers can manipulate economic stick and carrots to dissuade Putin from further aggression and induce him to abide by the cease-fire agreement?  And effective military force—or the threat thereof—is irrelevant?  As he told the U.N. General Assembly last month,

“We will impose a cost on Russia for aggression… [W]hile small gains can be won at the barrel of a gun…a different path is available—the path of diplomacy and peace…The recent cease-fire agreement in Ukraine offers an opening to achieve that objective.  If Russia takes that path—a path that for stretches of the post-Cold War period resulted in prosperity for the Russian people—then we will lift our sanctions and welcome Russia’s role in addressing common challenges.”

History shows that leaders like Putin do not think like shopkeepers, narrowly calculating profit and loss.  Rather, they often have options that their opponents have not even considered.  Russia’s Parliament just took the first step to pass legislation to compensate citizens hurt by sanctions with seized Western assets.  Nor will Putin necessarily limit his aggression to Ukraine, as Russia’s neighbors as far-flung as Latvia, Estonia and Kazakhstan worry.  If they continue with their relatively conciliatory posture, Obama and other Western leaders may well find that it has just encouraged Putin in his aggressive course.

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Laurie Ann Mylroie, Ph.D. is an adjunct Senior Fellow with Frontiers of Freedom and a RIWI Editorial Fellow.