President Barack Obama has recently faced condemnation of his foreign policy from critics who say he projects a “weak” U.S. influence into international affairs.
A big part of that argument has centered around Obama’s handling of the Ukrainian crisis and his response Russian incursions into the country. Detractors have blamed Obama for emboldening Russian President Vladimir Putin through a slow response they say has not been forceful enough.
However, over the past two days, it’s become clear Obama believes his strategy in Ukraine has worked. He cast it as a central part of the emerging “Obama Doctrine” in a major foreign policy speech at West Point on Wednesday, arguing the U.S. was quick to mobilize international support to isolate Russia through sanctions.
In an interview with NPR that aired Thursday, Obama said the America’s ability to quickly gather international support for sanctions had “changed the balance” with respect to Russia and Ukraine.
“There is no doubt that our ability to mobilize international opinion rapidly has changed the balance and the equation in Ukraine,” Obama said. “I just spoke yesterday to the newly elected president of Ukraine. Mr. Putin has just announced that he is moving his troops back from the borders of Ukraine. And that’s an application of American leadership that is sustainable, consistent and is most likely to produce the kinds of results we want.”
Pressed by NPR reporter Steve Inskeep on Putin’s gains in Ukraine — annexing the region of Crimea and asserting his influence over Ukraine — Obama cast Putin as someone operating from a “position of weakness” surrounded by more and more countries that want to move away from Russian influence.
He felt as if he was being further and further surrounded by NATO members, folks who are looking west economically, from a security perspective,” Obama said. “And even in Ukraine, the crown jewel of the former Soviet system, outside of Russia, an oligarchy that was corrupt was rejected by people on the streets.”
Analysts critical of Obama’s approach to Ukraine have conceded Putin is operating from a weak position. However, some have countered that Putin played a weak hand into gains. Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula after what the West considered a sham referendum, and Obama couldn’t identify a point of leverage the West or Ukraine had to get it back under Ukrainian control.
Obama and the U.S. led the charge in levying three rounds of sanctions on Russian and Ukrainian officials involved in escalating the crisis, and the U.S. and Europe had threatened crushing economic sectoral sanctions if Russia disrupted the Ukrainian election last weekend.
In an email to Business Insider, Ian Bremmer, the president and founder of Eurasia Group, argued those sanctions did not work in deterring Putin from his path in Ukraine. In fact, Bremmer said, Russia may have gained something much larger as a result of the sanctions — signing a gas pipeline megadeal with China that had otherwise lagged for a decade.
Bremmer also pushed aside the assertion the U.S. has mobilized international opinion with respect to Russia.
“Very hard to say that the US mobilized international opinion on Ukraine. Hard to even say the US has mobilized American opinion,” Bremmer said.
Bremmer’s argument is backed by data. A CNN poll conducted in March showed 59% of Americans supported sanctions on Russia, but a plurality did not approve of the administration’s approach to the Ukrainian crisis.
And Europe remains far more reluctant than the U.S. to levy sanctions, given its dependence on Russian energy.
“It’s true that Russia is operating from a position of weakness. But they have absolutely no intention in changing their behaviour in Ukraine as a result of US ‘punishment.’ To date, this has been a failed policy.”
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