March 03, 2014

Transatlantic Unity Crucial But Thin on Ukraine

By Julianne Smith

Admittedly, the United States and Europe don't have an abundance of options in addressing or halting Russian aggression in Ukraine.  One of their biggest strengths, though, is the weight they both bring to bear when they act in unison.  We witnessed this most recently in Iran where targeted sanctions by both the EU and the United States succeeded in bringing the Iranians to the negotiating table.  In the case of Ukraine, though, transatlantic unity has been thin and needs to be strengthened.  To their credit, just yesterday, all of the members of the G7 agreed to halt preparations for the upcoming G8 meeting scheduled for June in Sochi.  This was a notable feat, considering Germany's open skepticism about the idea.  But on other fronts such as joint messaging, crafting common strategies for ending the crisis and reassuring Ukraine's neighbors, much more work remains.

Diplomatic messaging can only do so much to solve a crisis like the one in Ukraine but it serves as an important first step in isolating the aggressor and signaling that the wider transatlantic community strongly condemns its behavior.  Knowing that President Putin thrives on divisions in the transatlantic alliance, it was absolutely critical in the first few days of the crisis for the transatlantic partners to strike the same note and avoid gaps in their messaging that Putin might exploit.  While Washington and various capitals in Europe issued short statements over the last three days denouncing Russian actions in Crimea and reminding Russia of its obligations to uphold Ukraine's territorial integrity, there has been little evidence that the West has much of a plan.  Like the Russian attack on Georgia in 2008, it seems most analysts on either side of the Atlantic didn't see this coming, leaving us all feeling rather empty handed.

Over the last 72 hours, Europe and the United States have made countless phone calls at the highest levels to begin a conversation on actionable steps.  Our diplomats have also held emergency sessions at the UN and NATO sketching out options. Multiple proposals – ranging from sanctions to international observers to visa bans to injections of cash into the Ukrainian economy – have been tabled, but it's clear that transatlantic agreement on these proposals will not come easily, or at least quickly.  The sheer difficulty the U.S. and Germany faced in agreeing to the largely symbolic suspension of G8 preparatory meetings revealed just how challenging it will be to craft more substantive policies.  Whatever policy the West chooses to pursue next, one thing is certain – the effectiveness of any policy hinges on the degree to which the transatlantic community can put their full weight behind it.

Sadly, time is not on our side.  Russia shows no signs of backing down, and it is unclear how long the new government in Ukraine will continue to exercise restraint.  It is also unclear how much longer the Ukrainian economy, which is in dire straits , can avoid a total collapse. 

An even greater challenge will come if Russian troops move into eastern Ukraine.  Washington would then seek even tougher measures, but could struggle in pulling along its European counterparts.  In any case, a failure for the transatlantic partners to craft a joint response would be tragic.  It would give Putin the upper hand, send all the wrong messages to skittish allies in Central and Eastern Europe and raise troubling questions about the fundamental strength of the transatlantic partnership at a time when joint initiatives are sorely needed.