The Corner

National Security & Defense

Is the Obama Administration Readying More Concessions to Russia?

John Kerry’s train-wreck diplomacy hasn’t grabbed as many headlines as Amtrak has the last couple of weeks, but it’s doing its fair share of damage. In little-noticed remarks during his pilgrimage to Putin’s summer retreat in Sochi last week, Kerry raised the prospect of rolling back sanctions on Russia if Putin respects the latest cease-fire in Ukraine. Yet doing so would not just ratify the Kremlin’s aggression, but would directly contradict the administration’s stated policy. Or has Kerry accidentally revealed that another set of concessions is underway even while Putin’s behavior remains as hostile as ever?

A few days after Kerry lavished praise on the Russian strongman, a State Department spokesman opened his briefing with a reiteration of the administration’s standard line about aggression in Eastern Europe: “We continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of Ukraine and reiterate our deep commitment to a single Ukrainian nation, including Crimea, and all the other regions of Ukraine.” Yet the latest cease-fire, known as Minsk II — since Putin’s troops shredded Minsk I — says nothing about Crimea. If Kerry wants to discard sanctions provided that Putin complies with Minsk II, then he is giving de facto recognition to the seizure of Crimea.

To be sure, it’s hard to imagine how American diplomacy or sanctions can dislodge Putin’s occupation force from Crimea. But sometimes principles have to be upheld during the long interval when fulfilling them seems exceptionally difficult. The principle now at stake is an important one — not since World War II have European borders been redrawn by force.

#related#Besides, it’s astounding for Kerry to be talking seriously about Russian compliance with Minsk II as a real prospect. The day before Kerry met with Putin, NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg slammed Putin for equipping Russian-backed Ukrainian proxies “with heavy weapons, with artillery with advanced air defense systems, with training and also with [Russian support] forces.” For Kerry, this is old news. Two weeks earlier, his own spokesman rattled off a laundry list of Russian violations, from artillery and rocket fire to preventing international observers from monitoring the cease-fire. “The Russian military has deployed additional air defense systems into eastern Ukraine and moved several of these nearer the front lines,” he said. “Russia is also once again building up its forces along its border with Ukraine.”

All of these moves suggest a major offensive is likely this summer. The U.S. is training several hundred Ukrainian troops, but Kiev needs a much more ambitious support package, including lethal weapons. A unanimous Congress gave President Obama the authority to send weapons, but the president refuses to do so. To his credit, Kerry has let it be known that he favors lethal assistance. But in the meantime, he is busy perpetuating the illusion that diplomacy without leverage can stop the Kremlin’s aggression.

The Russians aren’t fooled. President Obama boasted in his State of the Union address that “Russia is isolated and its economy in tatters.” Thus when Kerry arrived in Sochi, says the New York Times, “It was widely interpreted here as a signal of surrender.” Then again, isn’t this usually how John Kerry’s arrival is interpreted?

— David Adesnik is policy director at the Foreign Policy Initiative.

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