In Kiev, Biden Looks for a Response to Putin

It was an explosive environment that U.S. Vice President Joe Biden arrived to in Kiev on Monday to support the “territorial integrity” of Ukraine. The diplomatic agreement signed Thursday in Geneva by the Ukrainian government, Russia, the U.S. and the European Union to de-escalate has seemingly already been hindered by rising tensions in the eastern regions of Ukraine, where separatist forces are refusing to leave buildings they have taken by force.

Many experts in Washington stress that the dice were loaded and that Russia has, from the beginning, orchestrated the creeping destabilization of Ukraine and therefore has no interest in stopping it. Kiev — echoed by the U.S. administration — has repeatedly accused the Kremlin of deploying Russian special troops to foment unrest. “What is happening in eastern Ukraine is a military operation that is well planned … carried out at the direction of Russia,” explained NATO Commander Philip Breedlove.

This weekend, Ukrainians produced photographs of officials identified as officers of the GRU — the Russian army’s intelligence unit — including Colonel Igor Ivanovich Strelkov, who was present in Georgia in 2008, in Crimea earlier this year, and now in Sloviansk in Eastern Ukraine. Many of the masked “little green men” seen by reporters in eastern Ukraine speak perfect Russian and behave like seasoned soldiers. “We are not militia; we are GRU special forces,” three combatants admitted to envoy Pavel Kanygin of the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

This secret, which only Vladimir Putin pretends to ignore — claiming that the presence of Russian troops in Ukraine is “hogwash” — says a lot about the challenge Barack Obama is facing: to find an appropriate response to Russia, which has launched a “secret war” in Ukraine, all the while denying it.

This is a huge challenge because neither America nor Europe saw Putin’s attack coming, despite the fact that it had apparently been planned for a long time. During his four-hour television conversation with the Russian people, the leader of the Kremlin used the word “Novorussia” (New Russia), a term from the Czarist era denoting lands in eastern and southern Ukraine. This was not a coincidence. A group of official Kremlin advisers had long theorized the idea of a divided Ukraine, which would likely give rise to a new state: Novorussia. Behind the supposed “federalization” of Ukraine lies this ambition that seems to attract Putin. The Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski told The Washington Post this weekend that members of the Russian parliament had offered Poland the opportunity to recoup western Ukrainian lands! “Russia has declared itself to be a revisionist power … ready to break the political and legal consensus,” he stated, striking an alarmist tone.

Impending Wave of Sanctions

So what do we do? For now, the Americans, who have ruled out any direct engagement, are prioritizing actions that send a firm message, without any immediate impact on Ukrainian territory. Thus, they decided on a deployment of U.S. troops to Poland and the Baltic states, a big start. According to Peter Baker at The New York Times, Barack Obama is moving back toward a “strategy of containment,” inspired by George Kennan at the dawn of the Cold War, isolating Moscow until it will listen to reason. The hope is that this principally economic isolation will eventually reveal the intrinsic weakness of the Russian regime.

So Obama, in permanent contact with his European partners, is preparing a new wave of impending sanctions. So far, a response consisting of massive sanctions against key sectors of the Russian economy has not been decided, with Washington instead considering selective hits to some oil companies without going to a total embargo, which his partners, divided and vulnerable, are hesitant to support. Biden is also expected to announce substantial help to Ukraine in order to reduce its dependence on Russian gas, save energy and develop its own unconventional gas production. “Is this too little, too late?” the hawks in Washington ask.

The firmness camp, which is starting to gain a voice despite the isolationist wave sweeping America, is also calling for arming Ukraine. For now, the Obama administration has only sent 300,000 military rations to a Ukrainian army that is lacking everything, especially morale. “Our foreign policy is always a day late and a dollar short,” noted a frustrated and worried Republican Senator Bob Corker.

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