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Global Geopolitics

The Standoff in Ukraine (and in Washington)

WASHINGTON, Mar 6 2014 (IPS) - As the fate of Ukraine hangs in the balance, U.S. politicians from both parties have been scrambling to take advantage of the crisis.

Republicans in Congress have slammed President Barack Obama for his “trembling inaction.” Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has revived the hawkish approach of her pre-secretary of state years by comparing Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s actions to Hitler’s.

The partisan divisions in the United States are dwarfed by the depth of animosity between those in Ukraine who favour the policies of Moscow and those who side with the new government in Kiev.

With the mid-term elections coming up this fall and the presidential elections beckoning two years hence, the confrontation between Russia and Ukraine has become the latest issue to roil partisan politics in the United States. In this case, however, the divergent rhetoric conceals a broad consensus on how Washington should deal with the crisis.

The situation on the ground in Ukraine, meanwhile, continues to be largely non-violent. But tensions remain at a high pitch.

After protesters in Kiev sent President Viktor Yanukovych in exile to Russia and took power in late February, a pro-Russian backlash gathered force in areas of the country with a large Russian-speaking minority.

The resistance has been most acute on the Crimean peninsula, a semi-autonomous region that is the only part of Ukraine where Russian speakers are in the majority. The region also hosts Russia’s Black Sea fleet, in a leasing arrangement good until 2042.

Russian troops have spread throughout Crimea, effectively neutralizing Ukrainian forces. After armed men stormed the Crimean parliament last weekend, lawmakers hastily chose a new Crimean prime minister, Sergei Aksynov, who leans toward Moscow.

He has called for a referendum on Crimea’s fate on Mar. 16 when voters will choose between Russia and Ukraine. The result is not a foregone conclusion, given the sizable number of Ukrainians and Tatars who live in Crimea.

Secretary of State John Kerry has attempted to negotiate a way out of the impasse, but his meetings this week in Paris and Rome with his counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, have not yielded a compromise.

Both the United States and the European Union are working quickly to assemble aid packages for the new leadership in Kiev, which presides over a rapidly tanking economy.

These diplomatic efforts have not prevented critics of the Obama administration from seizing the opportunity to repeat complaints that the president is not sufficiently strong.

Congressional opponents urged a military response to the crisis in Libya in 2011, which helped to force the president’s hand and initiate intervention.

Similar criticisms of administration weakness in the face of the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war last August led the administration to ask Congress for authorisation to use military force, a plan made moot by a Russian-brokered plan for the Assad government to give up its arsenal.

The same critics have been quick to recycle their earlier judgments. Obama’s opponent in the 2008 presidential elections, John McCain (R-AZ), echoed comments he made during the Libya and Syria crises when he appeared before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee annual meeting in Washington on Monday.

The situation in Ukraine, he said “is the ultimate result of a feckless foreign policy in which nobody believes in America’s strength anymore.”

His colleague in the House, freshman Congressman Cotton, accused the Obama administration of “trembling inaction.” The Republicans are eager to pick up seats in the mid-term elections and possibly retake control of the Senate.

For her part, Hillary Clinton is looking further ahead to the 2016 elections. During her 2008 presidential bid, she derided Obama for his lack of experience in foreign policy and called his willingness to talk with America’s adversaries “naïve.”

Obama went on to win the election and appointed Clinton his secretary of state. In her new position, she implemented the foreign policy she had previously criticised, particularly in her negotiations with the leadership in Myanmar.

Despite her misgivings about Vladimir Putin – during the 2008 elections she famously said that he lacked a soul – she led the team responsible for pushing the “reset” button on U.S.-Russian relations.

Although her reservations about Putin are not new, her comments comparing Russian actions in Crimea to the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938 certainly establish distance between her and the administration she once served.

Clinton has not come out and said that President Obama is weak, but her invocation of the Nazi seizure of the Sudetenland suggests that appeasement might be just around the corner.

Yet the administration and its critics do not offer substantially different recommendations for dealing with Ukraine.

The Obama administration has sent fighter jets to the region, but only to monitor the air space. No one is talking military options. The only different of opinion is over the relative mix of economic sanctions and diplomatic sticks.

The partisan divisions in the United States are, of course, dwarfed by the depth of animosity between those in Ukraine who favour the policies of Moscow and those who side with the new government in Kiev.

But despite demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, stand-offs between Russian and Ukrainian troops in Crimea, and the seizure and re-seizure of public buildings by competing factions in eastern Ukraine, so far there’s been no more violence than what might occur in an average European soccer match.

Even though politicians in the United States are failing to model bipartisan behaviour, there is still a chance that the different sides in Ukraine can find a compromise that keeps the country together and also protects the rights of minorities.

Much depends on Russian intentions and Ukrainian reactions, but also on the ability of policymakers in Washington to keep their own political ambitions in check.

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