President Barack Obama’s effort to rescue Ukraine from Russia’s military grip has stalled, and turmoil inside Ukraine’s government may hand Russian President Vladimir Putin a victory in a conflict that Obama has said involves “the most basic principles of our international system.”
Two years after the pro-western protests that toppled Kyiv’s government, enraged Putin, and caused an international crisis, Obama’s Ukraine policy is foundering — the victim of Putin’s steely determination, the distractions of Syria and ISIL, and wavering support from European allies eager to move past the conflict.
Despite personal pleas from Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. officials fear that Kyiv’s leaders are near a political implosion that would derail efforts to stabilize the country and eject Russia from its eastern territories.
“Syria has really taken the focus off of Ukraine. It feels to me like its going to be difficult for Europe to stay together and continue to pressure Russia with sanctions,” the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, told POLITICO. “At some point you’re going to have a frozen conflict that’s very much to Putin’s advantage.”
Critics like Corker say that Obama’s actions have failed to live up to his rhetoric, which casts Russia’s presence in Ukraine as a grave threat to European security. Obama has rejected calls from several top advisers to provide Ukraine with weapons to fight off Moscow-backed separatists.
“Putin has paid no price,” Corker said, adding that European leaders have told him Putin says “there is just no push back” from the U.S.
Nonetheless, the U.S. and Europe have imposed several rounds of economic sanctions on Moscow, and in recent months Obama has beefed up America’s military presence on NATO’s eastern flank.
But even as he warily partners with Putin on a cease-fire for Syria, Obama has not shaken the Russian leader’s support for the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, where fighting has killed nearly 10,000 people and stunted the country’s political and economic progress. After a lull in violence, combat has spiked in recent weeks to the highest levels since last summer.
“Nothing has happened to suggest that the Russians are any more willing to give up control of Ukraine than they were before,” said Ivo Daalder, Obama’s first ambassador to NATO and now President of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “In some ways, Syria became a distraction for us because it led us to work with Russia to try to address the Syrian crisis and to ignore what’s happening in Ukraine.”
Obama officials insist that the core of their strategy — implementing a February 2015 peace accord signed in Minsk that calls for Russia to withdraw forces from the country’s east — is still on track.
“We are pressing hard to see Minsk fully implemented by the time the president leaves office,” said a senior administration official, referring to the pact brokered by France and Germany and signed by Ukraine and Russia. “We’re aiming for implementation during the second half of 2016.”
Under the Minsk deal, Moscow must withdraw forces from eastern Ukraine and end its support for separatists; Kyiv must allow elections and greater autonomy for the country’s relatively pro-Russian east; and the U.S. and Europe will lift sanctions on Moscow.
Privately, U.S. officials concede that a government collapse could make implementing the Minsk accord — something that was supposed to happen by the end of 2015 — all but impossible, at least before Obama departs the White House.
“The worst thing that could happen right now is for the government to collapse and to have new elections,” said a second senior administration official, “because everything will spin into chaos, and the whole system will get locked up.”
That was Biden’s concern when he flew to Kyiv in early December. In an address to parliament, Biden urged Ukraine’s government to remain focused on political unity and reform in the face of Putin’s intimidation.
“It is no exaggeration to say that the hopes of freedom-loving people the world over are with you because so much rides on your fragile experiment with democracy succeeding,” Biden said. “It may be your last moment.”
Biden had barely departed when, two days later, the country’s beleaguered prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenuk addressed the same parliament. As he spoke at the podium, a rival member threw his arms around him and carried him off like a mannequin, touching off a wild brawl.
The government nearly fell earlier this month when Yatsenuk, who enjoys a single-digits approval rating, narrowly survived a no confidence vote in parliament. Ukraine’s President, Petro Poroshenko, has called for Yatsenuk’s resignation, but Poroshenko is barely more popular, and faces charges he has done too little to combat rampant corruption.
Biden has been conducting damage control from Washington. The vice president, who has visited Ukraine four times since 2014 and says he’s logged “close to a thousand hours on the telephone” with its leaders, has placed several more call to Yatsenuk and Poroshenko this month.
Russia has gleefully exploited the political disarray, casting Ukraine’s leadership as unable or unwilling to take the political steps required by the Minsk deal.
“Our Ukrainian friends aren’t doing their share,” Moscow’s ambassador to Washington, Sergey Kislyak, said in a recent interview. Russia wants the Ukrainians to move first on steps like amending the country’s constitution to grant more autonomy to the east.
U.S. officials are adamant that Moscow is mainly to blame for the stalemate, saying that Kyiv can’t be expected to move first when a portion of their country is a combat zone stoked by Russia.
But even some Western officials concede that the Russians have a partial point.
“The implementation of Minsk now is more or less frozen,” said a European diplomat. “Unfortunately, the Ukrainians are now actually carrying a big part of the responsibility of the blockage, because of the crisis in Kyiv.”
Such talk from Europe is ominous given the pressure European leaders are facing to end sanctions on Moscow, which have slowed their economies and cost their businesses profits.
Despite the occasional fistfight, U.S. officials insist things in the capital are not quite as bad as they appear. Ukraine’s parliament has passed some significant reform measures in recent months. Poroshenko recently fired the country’s prosecutor general, whom the U.S. saw as a major obstacle to battling Kyiv’s endemic corruption.
“It’s not necessarily pretty to watch,” said one Western diplomat, arguing that “rooting out the vestiges of the old Soviet state” was never going to be easy — particularly amid “a concerted effort from their big neighbor to see that the reform project fails,” he added.
That “big neighbor” is Russia, where Putin has worked to thwart Ukraine’s political progress — including through the use of organized crime, according to Western officials.
And although Putin dialed down the violence in Ukraine’s east last fall, Obama officials have been alarmed by a recent spike in fighting there. It remains unclear whether Putin is escalating the conflict, officials say, or if the separatists might be acting on their own.
U.S. officials say that until Putin stands down in the east, Kyiv will be hard-pressed to pass the political reforms required by Minsk. The problem was illustrated when the parliament considered a measure granting limited autonomy for separatist-controlled areas last summer; violent protests broke out in Kyiv, leaving several people dead.
“Minsk is now in tatters. Western attention at the highest level is gone due to the migration crisis and the Obama administration’s priorities lying elsewhere,” said Andrew Weiss, a former Clinton White House national security aide now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The whole thing just looks really messy.”
“The Russian bet here is that we have ADD, won’t be able to keep the sanctions regime together, and will find other stuff to worry about,” Weiss added.
The second administration official said the U.S. would remain focused on Ukraine, but that resolving the crisis could be impossible so long as its parliament looks like a fight club.
“Our message is, you have to have a government that functions. You can’t have disarray” the official said. “Otherwise, support from the international community is going to evaporate. So that’s the main point: ‘You guys have got to figure this out.'”