Ukraine Imperils Obama’s Foreign-Policy Legacy

 An Article by M K Bhadrakumar published at Indian Punchline on March 3, 2014

How far the blunt and threatening posture US secretary of state John Kerry took in his interview with the CBS News toward Moscow — and President Vladimir Putin in person — over the Ukraine situation was genuine and how far it was intended to meet the domestic criticism of the Barack Obama administration being ‘weak’ in its foreign policies doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Kerry demanded virtual capitulation by Russia under the shadow of US retribution and that’s being plain dishonest and unrealistic.

The history of the current Ukraine crisis didn’t begin with the Russian Duma’s authorization of Putin to use military force in Ukraine, if necessary. Kerry can easily check that out by asking his subordinate Assistant Secretary Victoria Nuland whether she indeed discussed a road map for Ukraine’s color revolution on phone with the US ambassador in Kiev Geoffrey Pyatt during their famous “F**k-the-EU” conversation two months ago.

In fact, that conversation took place on December 11 and the subsequent events in Ukraine, including the takeover by the new prime minister Arseniy “Yats” Yatsenyuk, have been ditto according to Nuland’s road map. Suffice to say, Kerry can’t say there is no blood on his hands. So much about UN Charter, international law, 21st century norms of inter-state behavior, blah-blah.

Kerry is dishonest in taking to the high ground of political morality. The starting point for a reasonable solution to the crisis is an honest stocktaking by the Obama administration as regards its deliberate attempt to kindle the new cold war spirit in Europe as a ploy to reestablish Washington’s transatlantic leadership in terms of a “containment” strategy toward Russia.

Equally, Kerry’s threats to Moscow won’t wash. Primarily because the US doesn’t enjoy global hegemony and it no longer has the ability to marshall a “coalition of the willing” in world politics. This is evident from the hollow threats Kerry held out.

Kerry warned Russia that the US and its allies would boycott the G8 summit in Sochi in June and even doubted Russia’s eligibility to be a G8 country. Big deal. Niall Ferguson has a fine blog in the Spectator what the G8 has come to be. Yes, based on last year’s GDP figures, the BRICS is slated to overtake the top four guns of the G8 — the US, Japan, Germany and the UK.

Whereas, Kerry is on cloud nine when he speaks of G8. Will Russia compromise on its determination to counter the US’ “containment” strategy because it may otherwise lose G8 membership? Kerry must be joking.

The same holds good for the economic sanctions he has threatened against Russia. How feasible is it for Europe to impose economic boycott of Moscow when its dependence on energy supplies from Russia is so very critical? True, US has no big stakes in trade or investment with Russia, but that is certainly not the case with Germany. Most important, will Japan’s Shinzo Abe mothball his concerted strategy to woo Russia as a counterweight to China — all because of Ukraine?

But Kerry is an experienced politician and diplomat. So, why did he say all that in the CBS interview? His intentions seems to have been to drive wedges within the Russian political elites. Russia has an influential lobby of “westernists” who have traditionally dominated its post-Soviet foreign policy. Putin’s “pivot to Asia” hasn’t exactly gone down well with them.

A very large section of the Russian elites park their ill-begotten assets in western countries and Kerry’s threat to “freeze” Russian assets affects them. In essence, Kerry has given a nudge to them. This is an old thesis among America’s Russia hands such as Nuland — that Russian power structure is ridden with factions and cliques that are vulnerable to US manipulation and Putin’s authority can be undermined.

But Kerry is in a fantasyland. How could Moscow compromise on Ukraine’s induction into the EU and NATO, when it happens to be an existential issue for Russia? Zbigniew Brzezinski’s noted work The Grand Chessboard, which has profoundly influenced the US’s policies toward Russia under successive administrations since the end of the Cold War, is quintessentially built on the geopolitical matrix that without Ukraine’s partnership, Russia weakens, and that’s the path leading to America’s primacy in the 21st century.

Simply put, the US has bitten more than it can chew in Ukraine. Alright, as Nuland wanted, “Yats” has become prime minister, but without Russia’s acquiescence, which is clearly lacking, it will take light years to put together a successor regime in Kiev that is stable and whose authority runs all across that big country of over 45 million people.

The Obama administration will find it an uphill task to persuade the European allies to keep bankrolling the Ukraine economy. It’s a tough proposition to replace with American or European supplies the heavily subsidized Russian gas supplies on which Ukraine’s economy survives. Ukraine’s debt liabilities run into tens of billions of dollars.

Most important, Russia will counter, no matter what it takes,  any US move to hustle Ukraine into the EU or NATO. The point is, there is no consensus within Ukraine for such a co-option into the Western orbit. The domestic opinion is evenly divided — and more so today. If the US proxies in power in Kiev try to bulldoze a decision, the eastern region, which wants to preserve Ukraine’s age-old ties with Russia, will revolt.

As the shadow boxing in Crimea underscores, Russia actually needs to do precious little to leverage what happens next. No “invasion” of Ukraine is necessary. Russia merely has to prevent the US proxies in Kiev from showing muscle power in eastern Ukraine and Crimea. In Crimea, the revolt by the local political leadership against the US-backed putsch in Kiev cannot be crushed militarily. With minimum effort, Moscow has ensured it.

The fundamental weakness in the US strategy is that Ukraine is not something that is felt in the blood and felt along the heart in “Old Europe”. The US strategy is riveted on “isolating” Russia, which is not an obsession with “Old Europe”.

Finally, if Kerry goes ahead and carries out his threats, Moscow is not going to take it lying down. At the very least, if Putin chooses to adopt the Gandhian way of “non-cooperation”, the US will be in big trouble over a number of foreign-policy issues.

If the US imposes sanctions against Russia, Moscow will most certainly bust Washington’s sanctions against Iran and it will put such a big hole in Obama’s foreign policy tapestry that he won’t know where to turn to. In fact, a senior Iranian diplomat has just arrived in Moscow for consultations. It will do well for Obama to know the limits to American power.

The right thing to do for Obama is to put the neocon lobby in its due place and to rein in the powerful ‘Russia hands’ in the US foreign-policy establishment who are running the policies for their laid-back president.

Nuland is a protege of Madeline Albright — and of Moldovan extraction to boot, and, furthermore, she is married to the famous neocon ideologue Robert Kagan. Is there any big mystery to be explained? There is really no need for Obama to look very far to grasp where the real problem lies. It lies within his own house. He shouldn’t be an absentee landlord when it comes to the making of the Russia policies.