President Barack Obama courted ridicule on Wednesday when he warned that there would be “consequences if people step over the line” in Ukraine. No one believed him, least of all Russian President Vladimir Putin, who saw through Obama’s “red line” on chemical weapons in Syria, most of which remain in regime hands after a Russian-brokered agreement. On Thursday, the fragile Ukranian truce was broken and 22 died in new clashes.
It would have been one thing for Obama merely to urge that both sides resolve their differences peacefully. That is the expected response–albeit a disappointing one–from a country that has decided to remain neutral, despite the real interests the U.S. has in the outcome. But to add the threat of “consequences,” when it is clear that there will be none, is to undermine the credibility of American power, further limiting our ability to do anything at all.
Russian opposition leader and former international chess champion Garry Kasparov was scathing in his attack on President Obama’s stance earlier this week. He said that the “confusion and moral cowardice” of the U.S. and the EU in “Syria and elsewhere” had led to the crisis, and that while Putin could cut fuel and funding to Ukraine, the U.S. and EU had no leverage, having offered nothing to entice the country’s leaders in the first place.
President Obama’s hand-wringing on the Ukraine was foretold in August 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia, and Obama emerged from vacation in Hawaii to offer the weakest possible statement, urging “all sides” to enter “direct talks.” When his rival John McCain offered a more assertive response, demanding Russian withdrawal, Obama feebly emerged a second time to issue a stronger statement. His present weakness is no surprise.