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Obama's showdown with Putin in eastern Ukraine

Barack Obama
Barack Obama
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Promising Russian President Vladimir Putin “costs” for his March 1 military incursion into Crimea, 52-year-old President Barack Obama might get more than he bargained for as Ukraine’s post-revolutionary government led by 49-year-old Oleksandr Turchinov announced “anti-terrorism operations.”. Designed to regain control over Eastern Ukraine cities flooded by pro-Russian Cossacks, Turchinov hopes to reclaim sovereign Ukrainian territory. With over 40,000 Russian troops amassed on the Ukrainian border, Putin could give the signal at any time to defend pro-Russian interests in Eastern Ukraine. Were that to happen, Obama would be forced to put-up-or-shut up in Eastern Ukraine jeopardizing what’s left of U.S. global credibility. Obama’s Capitol Hill critics rip him for setting “red lines” in foreign policy, like Syria, only to back down when push-comes-to-shove.

Obama’s biggest critic, ranking GOP member on the Senate Armed Services Committee Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), has already concluded that there’s no viable U.S. military option in Ukraine. Turchinov’s target in Eastern Ukraine are pro-Russian separatists that have seized government offices, police stations, airports and some military facilities in about 10 towns. Arriving on helicopters, Ukrainian troops began the messy process of cleaning out pro-Kremlin separatists from key spots in Slaviansk, about 150 kilometers [90 miles] from the Russian border. “Blood has once again spilt in Ukraine. The country is on the brink of civil war,” said Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on his FaceBook page. Announcing anti-terrorist operations Sunday, Turchinov mobilized what’s left of Ukraine’s military to fight to regain sovereignty over Ukraine’s Eastern provinces.

As long as Putin holds his forces inside the Russian border, Obama won’t be forced—together with NATO and the European Union—to counter Russia’s military moves. If Putin orders Russian troops into Eastern Ukraine, Obama would be forced to make some fateful decisions about U.S. military intervention. Getting into a shooting war with Russia would destabilize world markets, already showing some jitters. “The anti-terrorist operation began during the night in north or Donetsk region. But it will take place in states, responsibly, in a considered way. I once again stress: The aim of these operations is to defend the citizens of Ukraine,” said Turchinov, knowing full well he risks the full wrath of Putin’s army. Watching closely at the White House, Ukraine knows that its only real ally is the U.S. NATO and the EU have balked at providing military assistance to Ukraine.

Moving in armored personnel carriers with automatic weapons and grenade launchers, the Ukrainian military seems determined to retake control of territory seized by pro-Russian Cossacks. Turchinov has his work cut out for him in Slaviansk where separatists seized local a state police headquarters. Deploying the Ukrainian military defies Putin, who’s repeatedly warned Kiev that any military intervention would be met with Russian firepower. Walking a tightrope supporting Ukrainian military operations, White House press secretary Jay Carney stopped short of backing current Ukrainian military operations. Carney called the ongoing pro-Russian takeover of East Ukrainian cities “untenable,” but stopped short of backing the Kiev government. If Putin calls in his forces in response to escalating violence, Moscow will have the perfect excuse to stay permanently in Eastern Ukraine.

White House officials accused Moscow of stirring up unrest in Eastern Ukraine. “Ukraine is spreading lies that Russia is behind the actions in the Southeast,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov while visiting China, despite watching pro-Russian forces seize Crimea March 1. Lavrov’s denials about backing pro-Russian forces Crimea or now Easter Ukraine bear striking resemblance to White House reluctance state emphatically that they back Kiev’s attempt to retake Ukrainian territory by force. Moscow has been on record stating it favors a loose federation of independent Ukrainian territories in Eastern Ukraine, essentially ending Kiev’s control over their own country. Putin and Lavrov also back referendums on secession, something they pulled of March 17 in Crimea. Spitting off Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine would essentially end the Ukrainian state.

U.S. officials need to get on the same page as NATO and the EU before the current escalation gets out of hand in Eastern Ukraine. If Putin counters Turchinov’s move by sending in the Russian army or more paramilitary forces, it will force the U.S. and NATO to act more decisively. Continuing to threaten more sanctions against Moscow emboldens Putin to take more drastic action. If Russia acts and the U.S. does nothing in Eastern Ukraine, it would send chills from the Balkans to the Baltics, where former Soviet republics fear encroachment from Russia. Obama finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place, winding down the Afghan War, while simultaneously not wanting to start something new in Syria or Ukraine. If military intervention is out the question in Ukraine, the White House needs to stop talking about “red lines” or more draconic sanctions.

About the Author

John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’d editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.