According to his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama has solved the Russia problem. His brief passage on the subject shows he’s either blind to the dangers of the deteriorating relationship between Moscow and the West or merely too quick to take credit for a victory that is not even on the horizon.
Here’s what Obama had to say about the biggest threat to European stability since the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago:
“We’re upholding the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small — by opposing Russian aggression, supporting Ukraine’s democracy and reassuring our Nato allies. Last year, as we were doing the hard work of imposing sanctions along with our allies, some suggested that Putin’s aggression was a masterful display of strategy and strength. Well, today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated, with its economy in tatters. That’s how America leads — not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve.”
Every one of these sentences is, to put it mildly, a stretch. The US has indeed disapproved of Russian aggression in Ukraine, and loudly enough for everyone to hear. But that doesn’t mean it has supported Ukraine’s democracy. Ukraine has long asked the West for help in tracking down the money and assets amassed by its former corrupt rulers. Last year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and US Treasury even set up a task force to assist that effort. But nothing has been heard since. In the meantime, Vice-President Joe Biden’s son Hunter has been hired as the top lawyer for Burisma, Ukraine’s biggest independent natural gas producer, which is owned by former ecology minister Mykolai Zlochevsky, whom Ukrainian prosecutors seek for corruption-related crimes. The US government has also offered financial help for Ukrainian democracy — $1 billion (Dh3.67 billion) in loan guarantees last year and $1 billion in the first half of this year (and perhaps another billion at some later date). But it’s a tiny fraction of the $15 billion shortfall Ukraine faces this year, and that’s assuming the International Monetary Fund continues disbursing its $17 billion aid package as planned.
Obama’s description of sanctions as “hard work” on the part of the US is laughable. In the first 11 months of 2014, US exports to Russia actually increased to $10.22 billion from $10.18 billion from the same period the previous year. US imports from Russia decreased to $21.97 billion from $25.49 billion, a change of just $3.5 billion. America’s European partners have suffered all the pain. Whether the sanctions have worked is arguable. They certainly angered Russian President Vladimir Putin and made him dole out ever more generous government support to his cronies’ businesses. And sanctions have made it all but impossible for Russian entities to borrow in the West, causing Russia’s external debt to shrink to $599.5 billion from $728.9 billion at the beginning of last year. In the medium term, this might just make Russia more resilient to external shocks. The sanctions certainly have not ripped the Russian economy to “tatters.”
The search for a diplomatic solution, like the economic hardship, has fallen to America’s European allies. Despite US willingness to let Russia get away with its Crimea land grab if it steps back from eastern Ukraine — hardly a strong defence of Ukraine’s territorial integrity — all US diplomatic efforts have failed. “That’s how America leads,” Obama said proudly. It’s more comforting to think he’s faking that pride than to imagine he really doesn’t understand how ineffective the US has been in Ukraine. The US president would have done better not to talk about Russia and Ukraine at all.
— Washington Post
Leonid Bershidsky, a Bloomberg View contributor, is a Berlin-based writer.