I've got some foreign policy good news. Really.
Never mind that U.S. foreign policy appears irrelevant in Gaza, spineless in Syria, irresponsible in Iraq and grossly stupid in Germany (whoever OKd our dumb spy efforts there should be fired).
There is one important country where U.S. efforts may yet achieve a positive outcome. I'm talking about Ukraine, where Russia's Vladimir Putin has just blinked in his efforts to dismantle the country — in large part because Western sanctions (even mild ones) jeopardized his weak economy.
"In a world where everything is going to hell, this is a place where something is working," says Adrian Karatnycky, a Ukraine expert at the Atlantic Council who just returned from Kiev. "If the United States is looking to reverse a tide of failures, Ukraine is one place where there is a possibility of success."
Last week, the revamped Ukrainian military took back the key town of Slovyansk, which had been occupied by Russian-backed separatists. Ukraine has now recaptured around half of the territory that was once held by the rebels in eastern Ukraine, who have pulled back to the two large cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Having seized and annexed Crimea, Putin appears to have abandoned earlier threats to invade eastern and southern Ukraine with Russian forces. He is even ratcheting down the Goebbels-like propaganda blaring from Russian state media denouncing the Kiev government as "fascists."
Putin met more resistance than he expected, internationally and from the newly elected Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, so he is rethinking his goals.
Yet the Ukraine situation remains critical. The Kiev government doesn't want to bomb Donetsk and Luhansk and jeopardize civilians. Putin is still playing a double game, pretending to compromise at peace talks with Ukraine, France and Germany, while failing to force Russia's separatist proxies to agree to a cease-fire. New sanctions are needed to persuade Putin to end Russia's proxy war in Ukraine. This is the moment to recall why Ukraine's fate is so important to America's interests — and values.
Putin's invasion of Crimea upended all of the rules about respecting sovereign borders that have kept Europe peaceful since the end of World War II. If one European country can invade another — on the flimsy excuse of protecting the rights of co-ethnics — we are cast back to the 1930s, and the peace that Europe has known for the last 70 years would be shattered. That is the Pandora's box Putin opened when he sent Russian troops into Ukraine.
The Russian leader has spoken longingly of re-creating the 18th-century Russian empire, which would require Russia to annex large swaths of southern Ukraine north of the Black Sea. He borrowed ideas from the ultranationalist philosopher Alexander Dugin, who advocated forming a Eurasian Union (including Ukraine) that would work to undermine NATO and the European Union. Toward that end, Putin cozied up to Europe's rising roster of nationalist parties, some of them neofascist (neofascists don't seem to bother him when he thinks they are useful for his ends).
Putin's ultranationalist fantasies present a real threat to Europe. Yet, in a feat worthy of Houdini, Ukraine helped turn a possible disaster into potential good news.
Despite Russia's military and economic blackmail, Kiev held free elections and chose a highly competent president, a billionaire who'd made his fortune by building a confectionary empire. Poroshenko rallied the country and rebuilt his tattered military with help from thousands of civic activists who raised funds and volunteered to fight. He has offered eastern Ukraine Russian-language rights and a huge amount of decentralized power — the very things that Putin demands but falsely claims that Kiev denies.
Another piece of good news: Putin overreached economically.
Despite his country's oil wealth, the Russian leader's mismanagement and the country's staggering corruption have prevented Russia from reaching a fraction of its potential. With an economy whose size hovers between that of the Netherlands and Italy, Putin could not afford a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Moreover, his business elite warned him that even limited sanctions have done serious damage to the economy.
The final piece of good news: Putin's proxies couldn't rally the Ukrainians, even ethnic Russians in the east who distrust Kiev. That's because so many of the rebels either came from Russia (or Chechnya) or were disaffected losers who didn't represent the communities in which they lived.
Moreover, despite Moscow's denials, key rebel leaders have been revealed as Russian intelligence agents. Muscovite Igor Strelkov, the current "rebel" leader in Donetsk, has admitted he served in the FSB, the KGB's successor organization, until a year ago. Western governments say he is controlled by Russia's military intelligence. Other separatist leaders are also linked to Moscow, while Russian fighters and heavy weapons have poured across the border into Ukraine.
So President Barack Obama has gotten lucky. He has a smart partner in Poroshenko, even as Putin is retreating. This is the moment to press Putin to pull back the Strelkovs and broker a real cease-fire, or face tougher sanctions. If Europe won't join, then Washington should go forward unilaterally. (Another piece of luck: Obama has support for tougher sanctions on both sides of the congressional aisle.)
"Circumstances have given the White House a chance at a do-over, a chance to reassert the inviolability of borders," says Karatnycky. Given his rash of foreign policy stumbles, Obama would be foolish to pass up that chance.