Politics & Policy

Russia’s Inadvertent Helper

The U.S. response in Ukraine is emboldening the attackers.

Has the U.S. been helping to enforce Russia’s ultimatums on Ukraine, serving as backup to Russia in scaring Ukraine off from defending itself? The only possible answer is: Yes. The real question is: Why?

The U.S. is not doing this as a deliberate policy. What gives its policies this edge is a mentality of seeking safety through an implicit alignment with the aggressor, despite the surface opposition to the aggression.


The Obama administration has called on the Ukrainian government to stay calm and avoid responding to provocations, even as pro-Russian groups take over public buildings in eastern Ukraine. It has warned Ukraine against giving Russia any “pretext” for invading, telling it in effect to keep walking on the eggshells that are already crumbling beneath its feet. It has demoralized the Ukrainian government — and praised it for its lack of a forceful response.

This has, predictably, served to embolden the attackers. It has helped bring on a series of one-sided escalations.

The Obama administration has also refused to provide Ukraine significant military aid to defend itself, on the ground that it is too late to train the Ukrainian armed forces to use it. This smells of evasion. There are numerous weapons that require minimal training; delaying help always makes it “too late”; and Ukrainians are not short on technical capabilities.

Another of the explanations — that the U.S. does not want to provoke Russia — comes closer to displaying the administration’s true motivation. This line deserves some deconstruction. It means that Russia has a right to be provoked by Ukrainian self-defense, and that Ukraine and the West do not have a right to defend, lest they provoke Russia. It translates into privileging Russia with an exclusive right to get upset and fight.

Similarly, the policy of calling for Ukraine to refrain from using force translates into granting Russia and its “protesters” alone the right to use force. It adds a layer of Western reinforcement to Russia’s ultimatums against any use of force by Ukraine. Russia threatens to use any casualties as a pretext for invading; the West urges passivity out of fear of providing Russia with a “pretext.”

It is analogous to what is going on when a battered wife yields to an abusive husband, repeats his version of the story, and agrees that she should stop doing anything to “provoke” him — buying off his anger for a moment, at the cost of justifying to him his anger and violence. It aids and empowers the abuse, in return for a brief respite.

Any psychologist will immediately understand what this is about: identifying with the aggressor, lining up behind the more violent party for a sense of protection, yielding to his demands to tell the story his way or else get pummeled again. Children often do it when faced with a bully on the playground. It is what the Stockholm Syndrome exhibited by many hostages is about.

This is no psychological surprise when it is coming from hostages — people who are kept in a helpless, isolated position. It would be understandable coming from Ukraine at this moment. But what is it doing coming from the United States?

Russia has stated repeatedly that Ukraine’s police and military must not use force to stop the Russian-backed takeovers of government buildings, or else Russia will invade in the name of “protecting” the ethnic Russians. It is impressive that Russia feels safe enough to be completely open in saying this; it is a direct denial of, and threat against, the sovereign jurisdiction of Ukraine. But what matters here is something else. It is a two-edged signal: Ukraine must allow an indirect invasion and permit dual power to continue to grow in eastern Ukraine, until it becomes impossible to restore public order; or else Russia will invade directly.


This is meant to put Ukraine in a double bind, doomed whichever way it turns. It could work, if the world backs up Russia in pinning down Ukraine in the double bind. And thus far, the world has mostly done so.

The administration position contains the implied threat that if the Kiev government uses force to uphold public order the U.S. could half-join Russia in blaming Ukraine for the consequences and wash its hands of the matter. The administration would probably not fully act on that threat in the actual event; yet for now the threat is there, not explicit but fully perceived under the skin.


Making matters worse, the police in Ukraine are infiltrated by Russian forces and often led by Yanukovych people. The security forces might splinter in a crackdown. The administration could use any such splintering to say, “We told you so.”

This goes far toward explaining Ukraine’s passivity. That stance could change at any moment — Ukraine’s army has now moved closer to where the pro-Russian groups are operating — but thus far the pattern has been one of damaging passivity. The Kiev government seeks a peaceful resolution of each takeover. It gives more and more public concessions. Its deadlines pass. It looks helpless. The State Department praises this policy (e.g., a U.S. Department of State Dipnote from April 13, 2014: “Ukraine: Choosing Diplomacy Over Aggression”). Russia encourages more takeovers and promises the pro-Russian groups protection. People sense that Russia is going to win. A pile-on effect gets underway.

And an opposite reaction ensues. Western Ukrainian radicals — members of the “Right Sector” — are currently mobilizing “self-defense forces” to protect their country, in the face of what they call the government’s “pacifism” vis-à-vis the invasion. Their accusation of “pacifism” has not been unfair, thus far, but it should probably be directed less against Kiev than against Washington.

Many Western writers point, justifiably, to things we should regret from the past, regarding our failure to integrate Russia when it wanted to be integrated as an ally. But this cannot excuse a failure to face the reality in the present.

The U.S. has — what is painful to remember — a legal responsibility to protect Ukraine from Russian attack. Under President Clinton, it solemnly gave that pledge in the Budapest Memorandum, in return for Ukraine’s giving up its nuclear arsenal and its ability to fully defend itself. It was a serious pledge, in some respects more serious than NATO membership, for something very big was given up by Ukraine in return for it. The U.S. is in no position now to honor that pledge in full; but refusing all serious options to help Ukraine defend itself, and doing the opposite of helping beneath the surface, is unacceptable.

The results of the Obama administration’s policy are in front of us. Escalating takeovers in eastern Ukraine, the peeling off of the police, who feel no power at their backs, the military as the only instrument left to the government, a rise of opposing paramilitaries inside Ukraine, a slide toward civil war, a likelihood of a direct Russian invasion.

Russia has played the role of the arsonist who impersonates the fire chief so that he can take advantage of the fires he starts. The Obama administration has played the role of an enabler for the arsonist-invader.


While the immediate problem is administration policy on Ukraine, we would be remiss if we did not acknowledge that the underlying problem goes beyond this. It has been a recurrent psychological problem afflicting the Obama administration. It did the same thing as an enabler for the short-lived Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt: It turned to the MB government to put out the very fires the Brotherhood was fostering in Gaza and Sinai. And it praised it for this “help,” even while the Brotherhood was using the role of arbiter in order to conduct a major purge and consolidate its power over the military.

It was as if the administration positively wished to get locked into a situation in which the West was held hostage to the Brotherhood. President Carter had shown a similar instinct for having America held hostage by Iran. Why?


There are doctrines that favor being held hostage — some out of pacifism, some out of a view of the West as at fault for the world’s problems. There are mentalities that welcome the escape from freedom, with its awful responsibilities for self-defense and use of force. There can be professional interests in this, too, alongside the ideological ones. The mass media have usually acted as hostage-mentality diffusers, treating Western governments as the party that will be blamed if they do not yield to the demands of the hostage takers and the latter proceed to carry out their threats to kill someone.

The Stockholm Syndrome, it turns out, affects a significant portion of the American elite. Actual hostages, though isolated, act within the known national cultural framework. It is almost impossible for them not to sense that there will be a public resonance, if they align their speech in “peace” with those who are holding them.

This helps explain why some people yield to the Stockholm Syndrome. It also explains why President Obama does what he has been doing on Ukraine.

The administration’s earlier Brotherhood-empowering policy, had it succeeded and the military not overthrown the Brotherhood anyway, would have placed at risk the fragile peace of the entire Middle East. The administration’s present enabler policy for Russia puts at risk the peace of Europe and the entire world.

The administration has to come out of it. Shock therapy may help. Meanwhile, what we can provide here is policy therapy.

What would a responsible, non-enabler policy look like?

1. Unambiguously backing the right of Ukraine to use all normal governmental means for restoring control over its public spaces in the eastern part of the country.

2. Forcefully denying any right of Russia to be “provoked” by Ukraine’s self-defense or by any acts the U.S. takes to fulfill its duty of protecting Ukraine. (“Forcefully” means: strong language, proven earnest by active help to Ukrainian self-defense.)

3. Providing materiel for retaking buildings with a minimum of casualties. Giving sound advice on this: advice designed to win, not to lose.

4. Pushing the Ukrainian government to resolve the problems that remain in its distribution of posts and in its language law, by proactive steps at the center in Kiev, not reactive promises of concessions during speeches to eastern Ukraine.

5. Urgently re-arming Ukraine, not up to the level of Russian power, but up to the level where the Russian people would find the price of any direct invasion far too great to stomach. 

 — Ira Straus is executive director of Democracy International and U.S. coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO. He has also been a Fulbright professor of political science and international relations. The views expressed herein are solely his own responsibility. 


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