News / USA

Evolving Ukraine Crisis Tests Obama Foreign Policy

An armed pro-Russian separatist stands guard as OSCE and members of a Malaysian air crash investigation team inspect the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, near the village of Rozsypne, Donetsk region on July 22, 2014.
An armed pro-Russian separatist stands guard as OSCE and members of a Malaysian air crash investigation team inspect the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, near the village of Rozsypne, Donetsk region on July 22, 2014.
Catherine Maddux

Just hours after reports that Malaysian Airlines flight 17 had been shot down over eastern Ukraine, the stark reality that 298 civilians from nearly a dozen nations had just become the latest victims in a Russian-backed separatist movement came as somewhat of a jolt.

All were dead. Locals reported bodies falling from the sky into a field dotted with sunflowers.

It happened in a part of the world where Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and the eruption of fighting in the east had already severely strained U.S.-Russia relations.

Now the downing of MH17 and the possibility that Russia could have armed and trained Ukrainian rebels to use surface-to-air weaponry needed to shoot the jet out of the sky brought new diplomatic challenges.

For the Obama administration, it was yet another test of its policy towards the Kremlin, which, along with the European Union, has relied on ramping up targeted sanctions to deter Putin.

“The developments are starting [to] unfold very quickly,” said Yuri Felshtinsky, a Russian author and historian who has close ties to some of Putin’s most vocal critics. “I think President Obama could, of course, use this opportunity to change his position drastically.”

Reset button fizzles

Six years ago, the American vision of what of U.S.-Russian relations might be was more hopeful.

Early in President Obama’s first term, the president announced he was hitting the button to reset U.S. policy towards Russia, with the goal of reversing what he called a “dangerous drift in an important bilateral relationship.”

"I think the reset was a useful idea,” said Simon Saradzhyan, a research fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center and assistant director of the U.S.-Russia Initiative to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism. “It generated tangible benefits for the U.S. and for Russia.

“Things like [a] new START [Treaty], 123 Agreement or transit to Afghanistan or [a] new round of sanctions on Iran,” he said. “These things advanced U.S. interests and Russian interests.”

From the American perspective, the point of reset was that it was better to have Russia cooperating with the United States on important national security issues than not. The thinking was that success of tricky negotations for such initiatives was far more likely. 

Michael McFaul, a key architect of the reset policy who served as the American ambassador to Russia from 2012 until February of this year, was quoted as saying one of the reasons the reset initiative faded away was because “Putin decided it wasn’t in the interest of Russia the way he defines it.”

Putin calculated demonizing the United States instead of cooperating would get him what he wanted: an economically and militarily strong Russia that would take its rightful place on the world stage,  according to McFaul’s published comments.

For Saradzhyan, the fizzling of the Russia reset had more to do with a dearth of common ground.

“They had picked all the low hanging fruit, and they were left with things they couldn’t agree on for years, such as missile defense,” he said.

Ukraine crisis impact

In March, the Crimea land grab rippled like a tectonic shift. How to respond to what, in essence, is a redrawing of the map of Europe?

Obama and the European Union immediately denounced Putin and slapped sanctions on members of his inner circle. Those bans have been tightened by both the U.S. and the EU, but critics say Europe’s reluctance to impose the kind of sanctions that would bite Russia’s energy sector shows the West has been weak in confronting Putin.

While there is widespread agreement among experts that Putin most likely had not planned on annexing the region, some say the Obama administration should have at least entertained the possibility once Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych fled Kiev after his refusal to sign a deal with the European Union unleashed a fury of street protests.

“Just looking at the record, it strikes me that the administration really failed at that point,” said Thomas Graham, a Russia expert who served on the National Security Council in the Bush White House and is now a managing director at Kissinger Associates, Inc.

To be caught so “flat-footed” raises some important questions about exactly where the administration was on its Russian foreign policy, Graham added.

"To what extent did the [Obama] administration, as it was dealing with Ukraine over the past year, actually think through how this would impact on Russia, what the possible Russian responses would be, and how effective those responses would be?” he asked. “And then, did they begin to think through what would be appropriate U.S. responses to whatever range of actions the Russians might take?” 

Saradzhyan agrees there was a lack of foresight on the part of the Obama administration that the key moment was the end of Yanukovych’s reign.

“To have Yanukovych ousted with a fairly strong representation of anti-Russian nationalists in key posts in the interim government, that was [the] game-changing event for Putin and that's what sprang him into action,” Sarazyhan said, adding that the Russian leader has drawn very clear red lines about advancing European and NATO influence anywhere near his backyard.

Others are more forgiving, arguing that Obama has had few options in the face of Putin’s aggression.

Angela Stent, director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European at Georgetown University, said the president is somewhat cornered. Starkly put, Ukraine is a far more important issue for Russia than it is to the United States and one where military force been ruled out, she said.

“Sanctions are the default position for the United States and they have already had an economic impact in Russia and are deterring future investment,” she said. “But there is no sign yet that they have had a political impact or have changed Russia's behavior.” While sanctions are meant to be punishing, Stent added, they rarely act as a deterrent historically.

Call to arms

But the downing of MH17 has brought a sense of urgency in the West and with it, more pressure on Obama and Europe to act. Increasingly, there are calls for the United States to support the Ukraine economically and militarily in its efforts to quell Russian-armed separatists.

McFaul raised the possibility on Twitter a few days after the crash of MH17, tweeting messages such as “If Putin can arm rebels, why can't we arm Ukraine?”  and “West has to stop trying to change Putin's mind, and focus more on helping Ukraine succeed, including on the battlefield.”

Helping stabilize Ukraine would be far more effective than waiting on sanctions to force Putin to negotiate a solution to crisis, said Graham in an email following the plane crash.

“If the United States and European Union were more serious about confronting Russia over Ukraine, they would focus less energy on sanctioning Russia and more on helping to build the Ukrainian state and repair its economy,” he said, making his case in an op-ed in the Financial Times this week.

That proposition would not be quick fix, argues Anthony Cordesman, a former Pentagon official and currently the Arleigh A. Burke Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“It [the downing of the jet] gives the U.S. more leverage in mobilizing world opinion and getting support for sanctions from European allies....but the whole problem of how Russia deals with the states around it is going to go on in the future,” Cordesman said.

Rebuilding a country as plagued with deep political and economic dysfunction as Ukraine is no easy task, he added, one that would take years with no guarantee of success.

While some think the key misfire on the part of President Obama was the moment Yanukovych left his post, others say the real game-changer in U.S.-Russian relations took place on July 17.

“The MH-17 is a watershed event, which provided an opportunity for Russia to take a step back and search for a diplomatic solution,” said Ariel Cohen, principal at International Market Analysis, an energy and natural resources advisory company and a scholar at the Heritage Foundation.

“Instead, Russia chose to blame Ukraine for the downing of the Malaysian jet, protected the rebels, denied their obvious guilt, and has escalated the hostilities in Eastern Ukraine,” he said. “The West has no other options left but to either swallow Russia's behavior, or expand economic sanctions. The United States chose the latter.”

You May Like

Video Americans, Tourists, Reflect on Meaning of Thanksgiving

VOA garnered opinions from several people soon after November 13 Paris attacks, which colored many of their thoughts

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

In northern Thailand, the annual tradition of constructing floating baskets to carry away the year’s bad spirits highlights the Loy Krathong festival

Video Tree Houses - A Branch of American Dream

Workshops aimed at teaching people how to build tree houses have become widely popular in America in recent years

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Gennady from: Russia, Volga Region
July 27, 2014 12:53 PM
Certainly, such trash as in the article is what Americans need for the domestic consumption only with their picture of the multipolar world. Comments, all from the USA, show that they have taken such garbage seriously.
The thing is, the author ignores basic facts, and she does not know historic context and development in the USA/Russia relations in the last 5-10 years: advancement of NATO to the East of Europe, deployment of American missiles, the Malaysian Airlines flight, “annexation” of Crimea. The author does not suspect that the Obama’s attitude to Russia is the only reason behind failed resetting button. Her interpretation does not correspond to the reality and the article is delusional. Therefore, what is the benefit in publishing such misconception for the international audience? It is for just more to discredit the VOA.

by: meanbill from: USA
July 27, 2014 12:45 PM
US President George W. Bush "quote" said it; .. "The actions we take and the decisions we make in this decade will have consequences far into this century.. If America shows weakness and uncertainty, the world will drift toward tragedy.. This will not happen on my watch" ....
US President George W. Bush also "quote" said it; ... "For diplomacy to be effective, words must be credible, and no one can now doubt the word of America." ...

US President Barack Obama "quote" said it; .. "I don't oppose all wars. What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war." ....
With the whole world erupting in chaos, violence, killings, destruction and wars, (the world must wait), while Obama tries to figure out what kind of wars they are, before he decides to do anything? ... (REMEMBER what Bush "quote" said?) ... "If America shows weakness ad uncertainty, the world will drift toward tragedy."

by: Curly from: USA
July 27, 2014 10:49 AM
Evolving Ukraine Crisis Tests Obama Foreign Policy

What Foreign Policy? From the way I see it Obama is leading from behind, running to catch up. Look at Ukraine, ISIS, Syria, Libya, events in Central and South America and even Russia. It seems that the Obama administration had no idea that there was any problems and was caught by surprise and now is frozen with fear that they have lost leadership. Leadership that Obama has never wanted in the first place and does not know how to lead. The last part maybe the reason that he wanted to lead from behind in the first place.

by: Charles from: Georgia
July 27, 2014 9:56 AM
After the infamous "red line", Putin has correctly deduced that President Obama would do nothing but talk and Europe would never seriously sanction it's favorite gas station.
In Response

by: Eloy Montaovo from: Mexico
July 27, 2014 2:36 PM
I am not a political expert as the people mentioned in the VOA report, but the common sense indicates me that the worst President Obama´s mistake is try to destroy the land where Russia itself was born. As I know and you too, Motherland is the country you were born in and that you feel a strong emotional connection with. To be or not to be that is the question.

by: Mark from: South Carolina
July 27, 2014 9:37 AM
Sadly, I expect our blundering administrations efforts to fail.

by: Robert Furst from: Florida, USA
July 27, 2014 9:31 AM
Obama has no clear foreign policy. This is the perfect time for Russia to remake its empire and there is absolutely nothing America can do about it. Every time the Obama administration mixed in to another countries Foreign policy the entire region lit up on fire.
In Response

by: Eric L from: New Jersey
July 27, 2014 12:59 PM
'it is all Obama's fault!'

Get real, US foreign policy has been a mess for decades.

Recall the idea that democracy should be forcefully implemented in the Mideast that just completely ignored our alliance with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Monarchies.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs

Day in Photos

A dog, with his fur dyed green and wearing antlers made out of red fabric, poses for a photograph before participating in the Thanksgiving Day Parade in El Paso, Texas, United States, Nov. 26, 2015.

A dog, with his fur dyed green and wearing antlers made out of red fabric, poses for a photograph before participating in the Thanksgiving Day Parade in El Paso, Texas, United States, Nov. 26, 2015.