Earlier this month, US Secretary of State John Kerry finally got to Ukraine, and this week President Barack Obama is in Europe trying to rally his European counterparts against Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent invasion of Crimea and a looming attack on eastern Ukraine. Europe hasn't needed US leadership this badly since the end of the Cold War, yet our response has been late, in no small part due to the selective righteousness of Congress.
Last summer and autumn, the buzz on Capitol Hill was that key members of Congress were reluctant to visit Ukraine until certain conditions were met. Most importantly, they expected a tentative European Union-Ukraine trade deal would include former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko's release from prison. Let the Europeans work things out with the government of then-President Viktor Yanukovich, Washington concluded. Free Tymoshenko, senior staff told me, and then - and only then - we'll engage you.
Don't just blame Kerry, whose envoy was grounded at the last minute due to our October 2013 government shutdown. Also blame Congress, whose champions of democracy and human rights waited out Ukraine's choice between Russia and the West rather than reaching out to admonish and encourage the leadership.
That EU deal never came, of course, amid threatened sanctions and promises of $15bn in emergency loans from Russia. What followed were weeks of popular protests against the Russian-backed government, fruitless efforts by the International Monetary Fund to match Putin's largesse, and dozens of Ukrainians killed in clashes or targeted by police snipers. Belatedly, the IMF's efforts now appear to have come through.
To his credit, Senator John McCain made a bold visit late last year to exhort the protesters camping out in Kiev's Independence Square, but only after Ukraine abandoned the EU Association Agreement and the showdown was already in motion.
Later, and still without high-level US involvement on the ground, three European foreign ministers brokered a compromise between Yanukovich and the opposition. The deal fell through when Ukraine's Parliament, under pressure from the protesters, voted to remove him as president. They also downgraded Russian as one of Ukraine's official languages, playing right into Putin's hands.
Yanukovich fled, and Putin's forces invaded the majority-Russian enclave of Crimea, forcing through a flawed referendum and Crimea's dubious "independence". The Obama administration belatedly announced $1bn in loan guarantees, though it has been bogged down in Congress for weeks over IMF reforms. The EU finally managed to match Putin's $15bn, along with freezing the assets of key Russian policymakers. What is the downside of the Europeans taking the lead on Ukraine? A quarter-century after the Berlin Wall came down, Europe continues to live in Russia's shadow. French homeowners need its natural gas, British banks depend on bulk infusions from its oligarchs and corrupt enterprises, and German politicians thrive on its government-owned corporate patronage. As the lead successor to the Soviet Union, Russia also has credit for relinquishing its hold on German reunification.
Russia still sees itself as the counterpoint not to Europe, but to American power and prestige. When Washington outsources Ukraine's future to Brussels or to any other capital, Moscow appropriately takes that as a free pass. Congress ought to hold off all talk of war or sanctions until it's ready to cough up serious funds to keep Ukraine solvent. This means adding $5-10bn in loan guarantees to whatever the IMF and EU are pledging, and authorising new export credits through the US Export-Import Bank.
It also means rushing full-scale liquefied natural gas terminals so tankers might deliver in time for next winter, when Ukraine can no longer rely on Russian gas flowing through its pipelines. With the first two Nord-Stream pipelines operational, Europe receives only 15 percent of its Russian gas via Ukraine. And that proportion will continue to decline. Moscow can turn off Ukraine's heat without significant impact to European markets.
Obama has imposed targeted sanctions against a key Russian bank and members of Putin's corrupt inner circle, without need for Congressional approval. But as he sits down with European leaders during his March visit to Europe, it will be difficult for him to demonstrate the kind of serious leadership Congress has been demanding. Capitol Hill can't even figure out a $1bn "emergency" package. Getting Europeans to significantly punish Russia's energy sector will be a struggle, even if Washington is willing to make sacrifices of its own - which, so far, it is not.
No one who follows the Russian-Ukrainian dynamic was genuinely surprised by Russia's unfolding military response to the success of the grassroots revolution in Ukraine. Any feigned shock among Westerners and Ukrainian patriots may be an exercise in absolving themselves of culpability for pushing the Kremlin's buttons. They knew better, or they should have. And we should never assume the Europeans will take care of relations with Moscow, which will remain a bilateral US-Russian affair.
Putin has never been our soul mate, but his takeover of Crimea and looming encroachment of Eastern Ukraine were not inevitable. Had Yanukovich proceeded with the EU Association Agreement last autumn, there would have been trouble, including a new gas shut-off and economic sanctions against Kiev, but there would have been no military trigger. Having stood on the sidelines before the die was cast, we now face a challenge that requires our active leadership, ahead of the curve and ahead of the Europeans. It's time for Congress to do its job.–Aljazeera