Ukrainian military soldiers rest their vehicle near Artemivsk, eastern Ukraine, on Feb. 23, 2015.

Ukrainian military soldiers rest their vehicle near Artemivsk, eastern Ukraine, on Feb. 23, 2015. Evgeniy Maloletka/AP

Paralyzed by Ukraine, Dumbfounded by Russia

President Obama has faced overseas challenges before. But he has never had to stare down a nuclear power bent on reestablishing its sphere of influence.

The sluggish disintegration of a weak peace deal in Ukraine has come as nothing less than a blessing for President Obama. It has helped mask his administration's inability to determine the best response to the crisis, and to Russia.

But this respite will not last. Given the events on the ground, Obama will soon have to decide whether to send weapons and trainers to the Ukrainian government and risk turning what has been largely a border skirmish into a major conflict by proxy with serious implications for the United States, Europe, and American interests worldwide.

Certainly, Obama has faced overseas challenges before—most notably in Libya, Iraq, and Syria. But he has never had to stare down a nuclear power bent on reestablishing its sphere of influence. And he's never faced an adversary with the swagger and smarts of Vladimir Putin, who hails from a throwback era of global power politics that predates Obama's experience on foreign policy, and one that the American president can't quite wrap his head around.

From all indications, the president and his aides are downright torn over how to proceed, mindful of the consequences of both action and inaction. Meanwhile, Putin-backed rebels consolidate their gains.

That's making hawks impatient. As separatists last week secured control of the strategically critical town of Debaltseve in eastern Ukraine, Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham excoriated Obama. At times, they accused him of "hiding" behind the increasingly rickety cease-fire agreement and clinging to "any available excuse" to not provide arms and equipment to the embattled nation.

McCain and Graham simply don't believe Obama has the stomach for the fight. (Neither likely does Putin.)

The evidence suggests they might be right. It's become increasingly clear that the president has serious reservations about arming the Ukrainians, even as some members of his administration – his secretary of State, John Kerry, and his new Pentagon chief, Ash Carter, to name two – are in favor of it.

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"President Obama can't come out and say Ukraine is not a vital interest. It's politically inadmissible," says Simon Saradzhyan, assistant director of the U.S.-Russia Initiative to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism, an institute at Harvard University. "But if you look at what he's really been doing, it shows that the U.S. does not want to get dragged into a military conflict."

Since his first days in the White House, Obama and his foreign-policy principals—National Security Advisor Susan Rice, top aide Benjamin Rhodes, and chief of staff Denis McDonough—have held Washington's national-security establishment in low regard, preferring to try and chart what it sees as a modern, 21st century approach and not be weighed down by Beltway groupthink.

President Obama can't come out and say Ukraine is not a vital interest. It's politically inadmissible.
Simon Saradzhyan, assistant director of the U.S.-Russia Initiative to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism

That appears to be have never been more than it is now, when calls for action from insiders are turning feverish. That makes Ukraine Obama's biggest foreign policy test to date, and it's one time when the president simply cannot afford to get it wrong.

The prospect of arming Ukraine gained momentum this month after a group of former top-level government officials called for the move in a report. (The group included Strobe Talbott, who advised Bill Clinton on the breakup of the Soviet bloc, and Michèle Flournoy, a policy expert that Democrats often tout as a potential Defense secretary.) That triggered a fierce debate in foreign-policy circles about whether arming Ukraine would be a show of strength that could cause Putin to think twice about backing the separatists, or whether it could escalate the situation to a dangerous degree.

Obama remains attuned to both arguments, the White House says. Yet, the president has repeatedly talked of there not being a "military solution" in Ukraine and how American weapons could only, at best, help slow the separatists' advances and perhaps save some lives. ("Lethal defensive aid" has been Washington's new favorite euphemism.) Just last week, Kerry's spokesperson, Jen Psaki, re-iterated that "getting into a proxy war with Russia is not anything that's in interest of Ukraine or in the interest of the international community." Psaki will soon join the White House as its communications director.

Part of what is holding the White House in check is what national-security policymakers call "escalation dominance." Simply put, because Russia has more at stake in Ukraine than America does, there's a worry that sending sophisticated weaponry to the Ukrainian government will only up the ante. Direct intervention by the United States could lead Putin to end the pretense that he isn't backing the separatists and push him to send the Russian military fully into Ukraine, creating the kind of confrontation between the two nations that was largely avoided during the decades of the Cold War.

Moreover, the president's postwar foreign policy, as recently restated by Rice, is, at root, all about stepping back and letting other nations with a greater tangible stake in the outcome do most of the heavy lifting. That means the question of Ukraine is largely viewed as a European problem, by virtue of proximity if nothing else. (And, indeed, the U.S. was not at the table when last week's cease-fire was negotiated in Minsk.) Rice, in a speech earlier this month notably said that Putin's regime did not pose an "existential" threat to America.

More evidence of the president's reluctance came from Obama himself. In an interview with CNN earlier this month, he was openly dismissive of Putin's motives, saying the Russian president does not have a coherent plan for Ukraine. That matches up nicely with the belief of some foreign-policy thinkers who argue the best course for the United States is to do little and let the conflict sputter out. They argue that Russia neither has the economic nor military might to pose a threat to Kiev, much less the NATO countries that lie beyond.

But many who study Russia for a living believe the president continues to underestimate both the long-term threat to American security and Putin himself. "Putin's actions are a direct threat to European stability, security, and democracy. As such, they are also a direct threat to U.S. national security," says Alexander Motyl, a Ukrainian political scientist at Rutgers University. "The Obama administration has thus far failed to understand, or openly articulate, this point—even though a large number of former top policymakers and academics have in fact stated that the Russian aggression against Ukraine is only part of a larger Putin assault on all things Western."

Ukraine by itself isn't important to America's national security interests, says John Herbst, a former ambassador to Ukraine during the George W. Bush administration who helped write the report recommending arming the country. "But Ukraine in this crisis is critical. It's critical because, right now—and this is something the [Obama] administration does not seem to be aware of—the Kremlin has turned Russia into the principal national security danger globally."

Those who favor arming the Ukrainians tend to talk in Cold War terms, seeing Kiev as just the first domino that could topple beneath Russian aggression. The way they game it out, Ukraine is ringed by NATO member states, the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania—all countries that used to fall within Moscow's sphere of influence.

Should Russia take Ukraine, there would be no buffer between Putin and NATO, which means the U.S. could be facing a Guns of August scenario, in which treaty obligations could yank America into a European war it doesn't want. In their mind, the only way to stop Putin is now in Ukraine, by funneling in weapons and training its military.

"I am an admirer of President Obama's restraint in the Middle East," Herbst says. "But I don't think he understands big power politics. Big power politics is all about needing to restrain powerful actors whose actions might be dangerous."

Some of Obama's top military leaders also haven't shied away from using more provocative language about the crisis.

In a little-noticed interview with the Wall Street Journal earlier this month, the commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, Lt. Gen. Frederick Hodges, issued a warning: "I believe the Russians are mobilizing right now for a war that they think is going to happen in five or six years—not that they're going to start a war in five or six years," he said, "but I think they are anticipating that things are going to happen, and that they will be in a war of some sort, of some scale, with somebody within the next five or six years."

I am an admirer of President Obama's restraint in the Middle East. But I don't think he understands big power politics. 
John Herbst, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine

Much of the discerning of the threat involves reading Putin's psychology. Is he bent on restoring Russia's territorial glory or is he an insecure leader who needs to be reassured of his country's importance in the global scheme?

What frustrates foreign-policy experts on both sides is that the Obama White House can't seem to make up its own mind about it and seems unwilling either to confront Putin or engage him in direct diplomacy. Thus there is endless talk about making Putin "pay" through sanctions that have, so far, failed to deter him. It's a holding action designed to marginalize Putin, which, experts say, only seems to infuriate him. More important, there is little from the administration about an overall strategy in dealing with Russia in a global context.

Obama seems, in fact, to go out of his way to not treat Putin as the leader of a superpower, viewing him instead as a relic of a bygone geopolitical age. Obama hasn't pursed high-level talks with Putin since canceling a summit meeting in Moscow in 2013 after Russia granted Edward Snowden asylum. "There are times when they slip back into Cold War thinking and Cold War mentality," Obama said then. "What I continually say to them and to President Putin: That's the past."

In all, Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush made 12 trips to Russia. Obama has made just one—and that was in his first year of office. This, despite Obama's admissions that he has needed Putin's help with two of his recent most pressing security concerns: Syria's chemical weapons stockpile and Iran's nuclear program.

But more critically, isolating Russia and treating it like a second-rate European nation belies the reality of its nuclear arsenal. In the wake of the two countries' deteriorating relationship, Russia said late last year that it would boycott a planned summit on nuclear security to be held in the U.S. And there are growing worries that the U.S. and Russia no longer have the controls in place that kept nukes secure during the Cold War, giving rise to fears that a misunderstanding could have lethal consequences.

We are literally risking World War III for something we do not want. We forget we're not fighting for anything worth having.
Jeremy Shapiro, Brookings scholar

Putin's Russia, says Brookings' Jeremy Shapiro, "is the only existential threat the United States faces. Even if it is a low-probability outcome, it is a very bad one. I think it's worth talking about up front."

Shapiro does not support arming Ukraine. He says Obama should engage Putin directly to defuse the crisis and perhaps even grant Russia some say in the affairs of its border nations rather than stumble into a war incrementally.

While the Obama administration has been cool to the very notion of foreign "spheres of influence," Shapiro notes that the United States, as a matter of policy, has never much cared whether Ukraine is part of the West.

"We are literally risking World War III for something we do not want," Shapiro says. "We forget we're not fighting for anything worth having. That's the real danger."