February 5, 2015

February 5, 2015 | Commentary on American Leadership, Russia

Time for ‘reset’ of Russian policy

Our Russia policy continues to flounder, and if Team Obama wants to change that it’s going to have to start by ending its “softly-softly” approach to the bloody conflict in eastern Ukraine.

With time of the essence, high-visibility diplomatic/security meetings this week in Europe involving U.S. officials provide an important opportunity to do just that.


Because despite widespread condemnation, supposed diplomatic isolation and punitive economic sanctions, pro-Moscow rebels are really taking it to Kiev’s armed forces in eastern Ukraine.

The Kremlin denies that its troops are next door, but it’s clear that there are Russian “volunteers” on the Ukrainian side of the border — and there have been for some time now.

The rebels are also reportedly using Moscow’s military hardware (tanks and artillery, for example) in their ongoing insurgency, which has taken some 5,000 lives so far — increasingly, the lives of noncombatants.

Moscow isn’t making any plans to let go of Crimea, which it snatched from Ukraine almost a year ago.

In fact, in a recent letter to the Obama administration U.S. Reps. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) and Mike Turner (R-Ohio) expressed concern about the possibility of Russia stationing nuclear weapons in Crimea.

Sensing U.S. weakness over Ukraine, Russia is scanning the horizon to make life difficult for us. Reports indicate Moscow is cozying up to Havana and Pyongyang, including joint military maneuvers.

A tightening of Russia-Cuba ties — marked by a Russian intelligence-gathering ship docking in Havana last month and visits from long-range Russian bombers — will certainly complicate President Obama’s plans for normalizing relations with the Castro brothers.

Plus, it’s been reported that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is planning to visit Moscow, an interesting itinerary considering that Pyongyang’s potentates rarely travel abroad. The last thing we need is for the highly capable Russians to decide to help the North Koreans perfect their nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Of course, the Kremlin senses that the White House doesn’t want to get too tough with it.

Team Obama has come to rely on Putin & Pals for help on a number of pressing issues such as Iranian nuclear negotiations and a Russian-led peace plan to end the four-year old civil war in Syria — as if that were possible.

But the reality is that despite the soaring rhetoric, economic sanctions and plunging oil prices (which really hurt), Moscow has no current plans to knuckle under to the West’s policies over its sphere of influence.

It fully expects the “decadent” West to fold.

Thankfully, Team Obama may finally be coming around to giving defensive weapons to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko beyond the nonlethal “beans and blankets” that have been offered so far, according to news reports.

Hopefully, this would mean that the West would provide at least anti-tank, anti-air, small arms and critical intelligence to Ukrainian forces to blunt Russian aggression before it gets worse.

While no one wants to escalate the situation, or begin a “proxy war” (as some have called it) with Russia, the administration’s current approach of nearly one year is failing.

It won’t be easy to fix a full six years of plodding Russia policy, but arming Kiev would be a good start, among other efforts, for the West to show Moscow more spine.

 - Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Originally appeared in The Boston Herald