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Foreign Policy, International Affairs, Opinion

Cold War Rematch: How the U.S. Can Win in Ukraine

Today we feature a piece from a member of the editorial board (and treasurer) of the Journal, Ian Manley. Focusing on U.S. policy in Ukraine, he hopes to generate a conversation on the topic. Please leave your comments below or send your longer responses to nty204@nyu.edu. We look forward to hearing from you! 

Russia’s intervention in Ukraine is a catastrophe for U.S. foreign policy. But it comes nowhere close to the damage Obama’s own response, or lack thereof, has done to U.S. credibility.

Putin has issued a direct challenge to the United States and the institutional world order it supports. Russia’s invasion of Crimea, despite nebulous claims of defense of Russian ethnic nationals, is nothing other than a poorly veiled act of aggression. The UN Charter and international law require a collective response to protect the territorial integrity and political independence of Ukraine. The United States should be gathering an international coalition in the UN and among NATO to back Ukrainian sovereignty.

But President Obama clearly does not abide by this liberal institutional thesis. In fact, he has not made any hint that he is willing to take action beyond economic sanctions and expulsion from the G8—a collaborative group Russia clearly has no regard for. The problem is, President Obama clearly doesn’t live in the real world either. Starting with Syria when he backed away from his declared red line, he has been consistently reluctant to back up his threats. On Friday President Obama warned, “there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine.” After securing the peninsula and preparing further annexation, Russia has yet to receive consequences for its blatant disregard of these empty threats.

If President Obama does not intend to backup his threats, he should not make them in the first place. Russia has twice called the U.S. bluff and compromised U.S. credibility, giving President Obama the reputation of a boy who cries wolf. Beyond diminishing U.S. soft power, such discrediting also risks foreign miscalculation of U.S. intentions. If and when he must communicate a real national security threat, what’s to make the Russians, Syrians, Iranians, or anyone else take him seriously? Lesser misconceptions have been the precipice of war.

But the United States still has an opportunity to save face. It should rally an international coalition in the United Nations and NATO to denounce Russian aggression and broker the withdrawal of Russian troops from Crimea. An international peace keeping force should hold the border until referendums are held in Crimea and all other Ukrainian regions on whether or not to join Russia or to remain a part of Ukraine. Pro-Russian regions will likely secede, but it will be through peaceful democratic process, not through forceful acquisition. By championing the rule of international law and self-determination, the U.S. will be able to retain its moral and legal authority while still giving Russia its preferred outcome.

Failure to confront Russian aggression in Ukraine and support the new government is equivalent to a new Munich Betrayal, and this time, Yalta will not be as hospitable.

– Ian Manley

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