The Obama administration has opposed Ukraine’s rejection of a trade deal with the European Union (EU) but could still do more, experts say.
Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovich declined to ink political and trade agreements with the EU last month, sparking weeks of protests in Kiev’s Independence Square. The Obama administration responded by dispatching Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Victoria Nuland to meet with the pro-Europe protesters and Yanukovich.
Nuland told Yanukovich that the move by police earlier this month to tear down the protesters’ tents and barricades was unacceptable.
"I made it absolutely clear that what happened last night, what is happening in security terms here, is absolutely impermissible in a European state, a democratic state," she said, referring to scuffles between the police and protesters.
Vice President Joe Biden also condemned the violence in a phone call with Yanukovich.
However, some experts have noted that one voice has been conspicuously absent from the administration’s entreaties to Yanukovich—President Barack Obama’s.
“Victoria Nuland’s role in Kiev is a reminder that there is no substitute for the United States,” said Elliott Abrams, deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration, in an email. “I am sure the people in the Square who could identify Catherine Ashton of the EU were glad she was there, but what they really cared about was having one high-ranking American official right there with them.”
“What’s missing in this picture is the president, who has said remarkably little,” he added.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, by contrast, has gone all in to lure Ukraine into the Kremlin’s orbit. Putin announced on Tuesday that Russia would provide $15 billion in loans and substantial discounts on natural gas imports to Ukraine, which he has described as a “sister nation.”
Yanukovich rebuffed a similar bailout package offered by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that would have required him to make economic and judiciary reforms.
Critics say Yanukovich has ruled with an authoritarian hand and amassed great wealth as president. Yulia Tymoshenko, former prime minister, is serving a seven-year prison sentence that she says is a politically motivated attempt to prevent her from challenging Yanukovich in the 2015 presidential election.
Even with the Russian bailout, observers say the debt-ridden Ukraine faces the prospect of default if it does not make vital reforms.
Leon Aron, director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), said in an interview that Ukraine is viewed with great importance by Russia because of the two countries’ historical ties.
Ukraine is the most populous country among the former Soviet republics, with a population of 46 million, and the closest ethnically to Russia.
“Russia and Ukraine at that time were one nation—there was Kiev but there was no Moscow,” he said. “To Russia and Russians, Ukraine is extremely important as sort of the cradle of the Russian state.”
Domestic politics are also a factor for Putin as he seeks to tighten his grip on power and silence dissent.
“If Ukraine drifts toward the West, this is not something that the present regime could ascribe to, this is Lithuania, or Estonia, or Latvia who drifted, or the Poles with a different religion,” he said. “Catholics, Protestants never really were part of Russia.”
“With Ukraine you run out of excuses,” he added. “If Ukraine is drifting toward the West, why can’t we?”
The New York Times reported that Putin appeared to be “buoyant” and in “high spirits” at his annual news conference on Thursday, where he characterized the loan and energy deal with Ukraine as a measure to “support our sister nation when in dire straits.”
“In recent months, he has recorded a number of foreign policy successes that have established Russia as a force in counterbalancing Western dominance of world affairs,” the Times said. “They have included granting temporary asylum to Edward J. Snowden, the former contractor for the National Security Agency who exposed aggressive American surveillance programs; protecting his longtime ally, President Bashar al-Assad, from an American military strike by proposing a plan to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons; and swooping in to help Ukraine.”
Aron said one reason Obama might not have spoken out on Ukraine is that he feels the United States needs Russian support for nuclear negotiations with Iran and a resolution to the Syrian civil war.
The administration announced on Wednesday that Obama and Biden will not be part of a U.S. delegation to the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano will instead lead the delegation, a response to the Ukraine issue and Russian human rights violations Aron described as “pretty robust … by the standard of this administration’s Russia policy.”
Sens. John McCain (R., Ariz.) and Chris Murphy (D., Conn.), who spoke with tens of thousands of protesters in Independence Square and met with Yanukovich last weekend, have also raised the possibility of sanctions against Ukraine’s government if police engage in brutality against the protesters.
However, there is no substitute to firm, unequivocal language from a U.S. president, Abrams said.
“The Ukrainians resisting Putin and Yanukovich and the effort to draw their country back toward Russia deserve our encouragement and applause, and they deserve to hear it right from the top,” he said. “Remember, Ronald Reagan did not send his assistant secretary of state to say ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.’”