President Obama is making a major mistake by concluding the United States has no strategic interest in the future of Ukraine, and – even if he does get tough – Russian President Vladimir Putin isn’t likely to take him very seriously, warns former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton.
The Obama administration is publicly warning Russia not to meddle in Ukrainian affairs as a transitional phase gets underway and eventually leads to new elections in the coming weeks. However, Obama is also signaling that the U.S. won’t be encouraging a specific course of action, noting last week that he wasn’t interested in “moving pieces around on a Cold War chessboard.”
Bolton said that makes an uphill diplomatic fight that much harder.
“Putin has the strong hand here, both in terms of Ukrainian domestic politics and in terms of the economic leverage that he can exercise. By contrast, the United States and Europe don’t have that much to offer,” he said. “We’ve heard the president himself and his spokesman say repeatedly that we don’t see ourselves in competition with Russia here, which is a big mistake because we certainly are in competition.
“I’m afraid this may be a very unequal contest, unhappily for the people in Ukraine who just want a chance to have free and fair elections elect a representative government and decide their own course,” said Bolton, who argues that Obama simply fails to grasp the importance of the opportunity presenting itself in Ukraine.
“I think the president believes we have no strategic interest in Ukraine,” Bolton said. “He’s said repeatedly he thinks it’s a matter to be left to the Ukrainian people. In fact, we do have strategic interests in Ukraine.
“It’s a large country. It’s almost 50 million people. It was the breadbasket of the Soviet Union and still has enormous and untapped agricultural potential. It could be a major player in Central European affairs, and it sits right between the eastern border of NATO and the western border of Russia,” he noted.
“Let’s be clear, even if Obama doesn’t see that, Putin sees the strategic interest from his perspective. So for us to say we’re not going to play in Ukrainian affairs is just ceding the field to the Russians. I think it’s a view on Obama’s part that very curiously ends up in exactly the same place as [former Rep.] Ron Paul.”
Listen to the WND/Radio America interview with former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton below:
So what should the U.S. be advocating and working toward with respect to Ukraine?
"I think we should be making it clear that, along with the Europeans and the International Monetary Fund, we're prepared to help out a transition on Ukraine to help free them from Soviet-era linkages that bind them to the Russian economy. I think we also ought to be saying, as the United States, that we're prepared to revisit the mistake NATO made in 2008, when we should have put both Ukraine and Georgia on a path to NATO membership," Bolton said.
"Even though economic integration with Europe and the West as a whole is on the mind of Ukrainians, the fact is the European Union cannot provide security. Only NATO can do that, and I think that's the message that Putin needs to hear, that he is not going to have a free hand in Ukraine or any of the other former republics of the Soviet Union," he said.
Obama's "reset button" approach to Russian relations is widely panned, with many experts concluding Putin outmaneuvered Obama over nuclear weapons reduction, Syria's weapons of mass destruction and Iran's nuclear program. So if Putin is perceived as having the upper hand in our relationship, how much leverage could Obama gain by adopting a more aggressive posture like the one outlined by Bolton?
Bolton said he fears it's too late for Obama to influence an ideal outcome.
"Unfortunately, if Barack Obama said what I just said, they'd laugh at it in the Kremlin because they see that Obama has a foreign policy that is 99 percent rhetoric and one percent action. I think that's the problem we're going to have for the next three years. The idea that Obama says Russia should stay out of the internal affairs of the Ukraine, they find that laughable in Moscow. They are going to interfere.
"There's no doubt about it," said Bolton.
"Everybody says this is a matter for the Ukrainians, but the Russians aren't going to leave it to the Ukrainians. And if we stand on the sideline, the odds certainly favor the Russian position winning."
Bolton said election corruption is certainly a danger in Ukraine, but he believes the best course in the very near term is for the electoral process to play out. He said the nation is very evenly divided geographically, politically and by faith. Bolton doesn't think partition is a wise course to pursue right now, but may be needed in the near future, depending upon how the next few months unfold.