Politics & Policy

Meaningless Red Lines

Obama’s inaction on Syria and Ukraine shows there’s no penalty for crossing the line.

Seven months ago, a desperate situation in Syria set the world on edge; today that country’s ongoing civil war is treated as an afterthought. Yet the Syrian situation continues to deteriorate, with reliable predictions forecasting that this year and 2015 will bring more refugees and more bloodshed. There’s already been a tenfold increase in foreign fighters on the ground. The Syrian wound has not been triaged, let alone dressed, and it is festering.

The now-ignored Syria debacle is a reminder that failing to enforce “red lines” — even those made in the moment — has reverberating real-world consequences. And we’re watching those consequences play out in Ukraine now, as an even brighter and historically established red line is crossed.

While Ukraine is not a member of NATO — therefore actions against it don’t trigger Article 5 — it has long been placed under the orbit of Western protection (specifically, of the U.S. and the U.K.). In fact, under a 1994 agreement, in exchange for giving up its nuclear weapons (after the USSR fell, Ukraine had the world’s third-largest nuclear stockpile), Ukraine stepped under the umbrella of Western territorial protection.

Putin’s actions, first in Crimea and now in eastern Ukraine, clearly violate this agreement — he’s crossed a red line. The 1994 Budapest Memorandum, also signed by Russia, ensured “Ukrainian sovereignty” and a host of other protections. While the agreement does not compel Western military action, it was clearly intended to ensure Ukraine’s independence and to protect Ukraine from incursion, plain and simple.

That formal agreement stood for 20 years . . . until now. In the past few weeks, it has been completely ignored, first by Putin through his aggression, and now by the United States with our inaction. Pieces of paper don’t enforce themselves, and international institutions almost never step up. Agreements like this require state-based guarantors.

The leader of the free world’s response thus far? Light economic sanctions and weak talk for Russia, and Meals Ready-to-Eat for Ukraine. But what good are “non-military supplies” when men in masks with rifles and armored vehicles are shooting at you? It’s feckless and absurd.

As we saw in Syria, the Left’s foreign-policy perspective — of which President Obama is a dedicated adherent — has become fundamentally unserious and wholly detached from reality and from history. Force of arms is, to quote our secretary of state, so “19th century.” This administration fails to grasp that when you gut your military at home and don’t follow through on longstanding commitments abroad, the world starts to change — and not in your favor.

All of this means that when a former KGB agent seeking a return to Soviet-style rule invades a helpless former satellite state, the Left has no idea what to do — and therefore does next to nothing, except organize another round of talks that Putin takes advantage of. The rest of the world, friends and foes alike, watches and learns.

This is exactly what Putin himself has done, putting to good use the lessons learned by our insurgent adversaries in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nobody can go toe-to-toe with U.S. conventional forces; so instead, they take off insignia, wear mixed uniforms, and blend in with the population. Of course these Russian-friendly foot soldiers, at some level, are directed by Moscow; but Putin’s asymmetrical approach gives him a thin veneer of deniability (which the media and the White House perpetuate with furrowed brow) and creates a fog of uncertainty, leaving an already uncertain Obama paralyzed.

Worse, by saying from Day One of this conflict that he would never resort to military action, Obama took our trump card off the table. We could stop Russia but have already told them we won’t. Nobody thinks — including me — that we should fight a land war over this. But what if Putin keeps going, or the situation becomes untenable? What then? And how do we persuade Putin to stop, if economic sanctions aren’t working? The answers are limited, and with a world incapable of collective action, the United States stands alone.

“We don’t need a war,” President Obama declared last week. “What we do need is a recognition that countries like Ukraine can have relationships with a whole range of their neighbors, and it is not up to anybody — whether it’s Russia or the United States or anybody else — to make decisions for them.” This empty revisionism is an abject abdication of responsibility and stands as one more piece of evidence that there’s no penalty to be paid for crossing red lines that America, under Barack Obama, ought to enforce.

On Wednesday, Ukraine forces saw their first action, fighting back against “pro-Russian” militants. Putin then called Ukraine’s defensive actions a “grave crime.” Does this sound like a situation de-escalating or a Russian leader backing down? Thank goodness Ukrainian troops will have American-made vegetarian bean-and-rice burritos to eat as they battle Russian insurgents . . . alone.

Pete Hegseth is the CEO of Concerned Veterans for America and a FOX News contributor. He is an Army veteran of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay.


The Latest