American Strategy Isn’t Working—Ukraine Is Proof
U.S. pivot to Asia leaves Europe exposed
The scene in Kiev’s Independence Square was nothing short of apocalyptic as night fell on Ukraine’s capital late on Monday.
Nearly overwhelmed by pro-government riot police and paramilitaries, protesters campaigning for the Ukraine to ally with the European Union set fire to their encampments. Walls of fire blocked access to the square that demonstrators had occupied for more than three months.
In the face of this apocalypse, the U.S. government remains mostly silent and wholly impotent.
No fewer than 21 civilians and policemen have been killed. The protest movement has captured at least 50 policemen and paramilitaries—possibly many more—and is holding them in Independence Square.
Snipers, possibly on both sides, shoot at will.
In other major cities such as Lviv, protestors have ransacked government buildings and barracks and police have surrendered. There are reports that the Ukrainian government may well have lost control of the western half of the country.
It’s Europe’s biggest security crisis since the breakup of Yugoslavia—and is amplified by the fact that the Ukraine shares its borders with its old master Russia. So why has the response in Washington, the E.U. seat of Brussels and European capitals been so pitiful and disjointed?
America and the E.U. should be working together to help resolve the Ukraine crisis. Instead, the two powers talk past each other.
This disconnect has been a long time in the making. It began during the debate over how to handle the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Tensions increased when NATO intervened in Kosovo in 1998. The U.S. and U.K. favored air strikes; Germany opposed them.
America’s relationship with Europe suffered further during the Iraq war in 2003—which many European governments opposed—and also with whistleblower Edward Snowden’s leak of classified U.S. surveillance schemes last year.
But America’s strategic “pivot” to the Pacific has been the most damaging to its position in Europe.
U.S. Pres. Barack Obama strategy announced the pivot in 2012. In order to balance China’s rise as a regional power, more American military and diplomatic resources would shift to the tense Pacific region—much of the resources drawn from traditional U.S. strongholds in Europe.
So Pentagon facilities in Germany shut down while new U.S. bases stood up in Australia, for example. Additional U.S. Navy warships moved to Pacific bases until two-thirds of the fleet was in the Far East.
But two years in, the pivot has failed to make the Pacific any less dangerous. And the hollowing out of America’s European outposts has alienated Washington’s traditional NATO allies.
Insiders in London, Berlin and Paris believe America has cut them loose. In 2009, Obama declined to attend a formal gathering launching an important U.S.-E.U. summit at the White House. Vice-President Joe Biden attended, instead.
Whereas Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush had privately sought the advice of his European peers, the current U.S. president has adopted a high-handed policy where, detractors say, his administration pays little attention to Europe.
To be fair, the Obama administration has been visibly frustrated by the frequent internal bickering that occurs within the E.U. as well as by the European body’s incoherent positions on Bosnia, Iran and Syria.
This has led Washington to sometimes deal with Russia over Europe’s head. The Pentagon watered down its missile defense plans for Eastern Europe in order to assuage Russian fears, much to surprise and horror of Poland and the Baltic states.
U.S. espionage targeting European leaders and citizens—revealed by former National Security Agency contractor Snowden—have set back U.S.-European relations by years. Berlin especially was horrified to learn that the NSA eavesdrops on German government communications.
To top it off, when America’s ambassador to the Ukraine Geoffery Pyatt asked Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland about Ukraine this month, Nuland—unaware she was being recorded—said, “Fuck the E.U.”
So the U.S. and European positions on Ukraine diverge. Washington wants to promote the Ukrainian opposition with the apparent aim of peacefully deposing Ukrainian Pres. Viktor Yanukovich. Brussels want to make a deal with Russia to maintain the status quo.
This has divided and halved the West’s influence in the region. The protesters on the ground may want to be part of a Western and European future—but lacking strong backing they’re unable to achieve that aim.
Meanwhile, Russia has played on the split in the transatlantic alliance to strengthen its own influence in Ukraine.
And if America’s Pacific pivot was meant to ease tension in the Far East, it has failed. Chinese military spending continues to rise. Beijing’s claims on contested territories have grown more assertive. Chinese state media justifies military adventurism as a response to a perceived American buildup in the region.
As China arms, so do its neighbors—mostly in an effort to keep up. India, Japan and South Korea are acquiring advanced weaponry. Indonesia, Malaysia, The Philippines and Vietnam are also boosting their armies, navies and air forces.
The Pacific is becoming an armed camp, thanks in part to America’s shift to the region. And Europe is suffering from that shift. Two years after announcing its pivot, Washington has alienated Europe, failed to reassure Asia and, on the whole, pleased nobody.
The result in Ukraine is chaos. The absence of a coherent response by the U.S. and E.U. pretty much empowers Russia to do as it pleases.
On Thursday evening, the fires burned as the standoff between protesters and police continued. The western half of the Ukraine slides toward secession with one region, Transcarpathia, voting itself “free of Yanukovych rule.” The majority-Russian region of Crimea has indicated that it, too, would like to secede and align with Russia.
The one thing that might restore balance—renewed and unified American and E.U. involvement—seems unlikely, given America’s focus elsewhere.