Assessing Washington's response to the Ukraine crisis

With the election of Petro Poroshenko as Ukraine's new president on Sunday, Ukraine's crisis is entering a new phase. As Poroshenko moves to consolidate power, now is a good time to take stock of President Obama's handling of what has been probably the most dangerous crisis of his presidency.

So far, the Obama administration has not had a great crisis. Focused on checking Moscow, it has taken a minimalist approach to aiding Kyiv. Yet Ukraine's weakness and dysfunction sparked the uprising against former President Viktor Yanukovych and gave Moscow free rein to stir up trouble in the East. Without doing more to get the Ukrainian state back on its feet even at the expense of increased tensions with Russia, Washington will squander an opportunity to help shape post-revolutionary Ukraine and create an impression of risk aversion that could haunt it later.

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As the administration concentrated on sanctioning Russia, it did little to help Ukraine's pro-Western transitional government succeed. While the International Monetary Fund offered more than $17 billion in assistance and the cash-strapped EU put up 11 billion euros, direct U.S. financial assistance was limited to $1 billion in loan guarantees.

The U.S. also deflected requests for security assistance to help the ragtag Ukrainian military resist both separatist militias in the east and a possible a Russian invasion. The administration's initial security assistance package only contained meals-ready-to-eat (MREs), when the government in Kyiv was desperately seeking small arms and intelligence support. Under pressure from critics, the White House eventually approved sending ordinance disposal and communications equipment, but continues to reject so-called lethal assistance. Skimping on assistance sends a signal that fixing Ukraine is not a priority for the U.S. and deprives Washington of leverage to shape a fairer and more functional Ukrainian state.

The failure to send military aid is mostly driven by a desire to avoid provoking Russia. Avoiding escalation has been central to U.S. policy, and while no one wants a hot war, it creates for Moscow a permissive environment to continue intervening both in Ukraine and, potentially, elsewhere. By refusing most forms of military assistance, declaring repeatedly that military options were not on the table, and essentially rejecting Georgia's NATO membership aspirations at the height of the crisis, the White House signaled that it would bend over backwards to avoid antagonizing the Kremlin, even though Russia had much more to lose from a sustained crisis.

Since Russia's revisionist ambitions in the post-Soviet region are likely far from over, that is a dangerous impression to give. Russian intervention in Ukraine, Moldova, and possibly elsewhere remains very much a possibility.

Even if Russia has pulled back from the brink of invading Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin's March 18 speech to the Russian Federation Council lays out an expansive vision of Moscow's "right" to protect Russians and Russian speakers across the post-Soviet region. This stance is part of a wider campaign to bring Russia’s post-Soviet neighbors back under Russian influence.

Should Ukraine and other post-Soviet states come to doubt Washington's willingness to aid them (even in the absence of NATO's security guarantee), their return to Russia's orbit will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, either because Russia will feel free to step up its coercion, or because their leaders will bandwagon with Moscow for self-preservation.

Ensuring these states' sovereignty and territorial integrity has been a U.S. goal for more than two decades. It is also a fundamental U.S. interest — for instance, to ensure that Azerbaijan and Georgia, which sit astride the major energy transit route from the Caspian Sea, can continue selling energy directly to Europe.

Of course, the perception that Obama is reluctant to risk confrontation even over forcible changes to states' borders extends beyond the former Soviet Union. Just ask Japan, which is seeking to deter a more assertive China and could rearm if it comes to doubt America's willingness to defend it.

Obama's reluctance to risk confrontation is in many ways commendable, especially after the bellicosity of the George W. Bush years. Yet as Secretary of State John Kerry rightly noted in his recent Yale University commencement speech, much of the world fears the absence of American power more than its presence. Ukraine is a prime example of a country that needs a greater American presence.

Washington's reluctance to aid Ukraine is undermining U.S. influence in Kyiv without deterring further Russian revisionism. Despite the election of Poroshenko, Ukraine's troubles are far from over. Creating a strong, stable, and democratic Ukraine is the best way to check Russian revisionism. With a legitimately elected leader in Kyiv, the Obama Administration should take advantage of the opportunity to boost its support for a more democratic and pro-Western Ukraine.

Mankoff is deputy director and fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.