Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Ukraine and Iran

by Elliott Abrams
March 1, 2014


Today’s news from Ukraine is grim. It’s increasingly clear that Putin believes he has an opportunity to move in the Crimea, and perhaps to take eastern portions of Ukraine for Russia, while destabilizing the new government in Kiev. So far the American reaction has been pathetically weak: a few words from Kerry and Obama but no action. Not even diplomatic action like a UN Security Council session or a meeting of the NATO Council, or a Kerry visit to Kiev.

The administration’s inaction and Putin’s aggressive conduct may teach some lessons: that the Obama administration seeks above all to avoid confrontations, at whatever cost; that its efforts to engage dictators and repressive regimes appear always to end in grief; that friends and foes alike see us as increasingly disengaged and weak; that this appearance of weakness tempts enemies of the United States to act. The very week that Putin acts in Ukraine is the week when the Obama administration unveils its plan for the smallest U.S. Army since the Second World War.

Those who are wondering whether we need to pass sanctions legislation now and put more pressure on Iran should take all this into account. Like Putin, the ayatollahs likely see our failure to act in Syria (indeed our willingness to be “rescued” from action by Putin) as a sign that they can drive a hard bargain indeed with us over their nuclear weapons program, giving up nearly nothing and getting sanctions relief. And now they see us reacting (so far) to Russian aggression in Ukraine, sending troops across the border into the Crimea, with tut-tutting.

The administration’s argument against the proposed Iran sanctions legislation should be reconsidered in the light of today’s news. The Iranians across the negotiating table from us are following Ukraine closely, and judging our country’s willingness to resist when international law is violated–as Putin is violating it today and Iran has been violating it for years. This would be a very good time for Congress to pass the Menendez-Kirk legislation, promising more sanctions if Iran violates pledges it has made and moves toward a bomb. One lesson of events in Ukraine is that relying on the good will of repressive, anti-American regimes is foolish and dangerous. Another is that American strength and strength of will are weakened at the peril of the United States and our friends everywhere.

Post a Comment 21 Comments

  • Posted by Dean Smallwood

    Vladimir Putin goes to bed every night and thanks God that Ronald Reagan is dead .

  • Posted by William Burns

    The Russians can blow up the world. Maybe a little caution here isn’t a bad idea?

  • Posted by William Burns

    Dean Smallwood,

    I don’t know how Putin feels about Reagan be dead, but I’m sure the ayatollahs miss him–they’re running low on spare parts again.

  • Posted by Omerli

    Maybe if the President issued another red line, Secretary Kerry could get another trip to Geneva and discuss Russia’s promise to get the Cossack’s to give up their whips…

  • Posted by william mony

    Obama not only looks weak, more and more our allies are learning with this admin, they are on their own. Obama has destroyed our foreign policy, economy, and empowered our enemies. I wish I could negotiate with him for something, the party he negotiates with gets everything and they give up nothing. I think his community organizing skills made him a great bargainer-for they other side. Elections have consequences.

  • Posted by Gene Aydinian

    China is watching as well. The time to take Taiwan may have come.

  • Posted by Stephen albert

    Canada and the Czech Republic have recalled their ambassadors from Moscow. Poland has called for an emergency meeting of N.A.T.O.

    They’re showing more leadership than the world’s only superpower.

    What,s more. every time Obama utters an empty threat,the Putins and the Assads of this world test his will. And find out that there,s no there there.

    Only Congress and public opinion can change the course of U.S. policy towards Putin.

  • Posted by Richard Millard

    How about re-visiting Obama’s decision to scrap the planned missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic? Might be an appropriate time to start construction on those…

  • Posted by Alex

    A second possible consequence for Iranian behavior deriving from President Obama’s failure to adhere to the threats he made against Russian interests in the case of the now-ongoing invasion of sovereign Ukrainian territory is that Iran would not only violate the terms of its current nuclear agreement, but also that it could begin annexing portions of Persian Gulf countries–namely, Bahrain. The US could then be drawn into a repeat of the 1991 Gulf War, but with perhaps broader consequences globally. Chinese or North Korean aggression (let’s say it, imperialism) in East Asia seems much more likely now as well.

  • Posted by Cory C

    William Burns:

    Yes, focus on Reagan’s illicit dealings with Iran over Carter’s pathetic foreign policy that enabled the Ayatollahs to assume power in the first place.

    It’s nice living in a leftist bubble, huh Bill?

  • Posted by Kursk

    Increasingly, we are seeing Canada under the leadership of PM Stephen Harper, taking on the role of elder statesman and voice for the democratic west. Canada is an emerging power folks, both in energy and food production.

  • Posted by lord garth

    it is annoying to be forced to take the side of Ukraine, a country of corruption and incompetence

    if it were not for the fact that predators like Iran and china will take more chances, I would be in favor of giving Russia dominance or even possession of the eastern part of the Ukraine which is the least valuable part of a not very valuable land

  • Posted by ah

    Mr. Abrams,
    Remember that time when you were Deputy National Security Advisor in 2008 and under your administration’s watch, Russia invaded Georgia’s South Ossetia? You conveniently forgot to mention anything about that in this posting….

  • Posted by TJ Colatrella

    Ironically Partition of East and Western Ukraine would benefit the Eastern Russian Sector as the West would lift the Eastern Western Ukraine Economically. Unfortunately NATO membership and participation is the Road Block to a Peaceful Resolution..

  • Posted by Costanza Sciubba

    I know it’s difficult to write down an analysis when the events are costantly changing but we had two urgent Security Council’s meetings going on last weekend and Kerry will be in Kiev in the next couple of days.

  • Posted by lord garth


    with respect to the 2008 Russian invasion of S Ossetia

    yes, the US did not go nuts rhetorically on Russia

    however, somehow the Russians lost quite a few aircraft and other hardware and took some human casualties also. The Georgian military had considerable pre conflict training and assistance from the US and had finished a war game shortly before the conflict; the Russians thought the US had helped the Georgians in the conflict and complained bitterly; the extent to which the US help the Georgians led to the military losses by the Russians will probably never be known both because of the fog of war and the fog of intell – similarly, the relatively quick re-arming of Georgia post conflict was criticized by Russia and, while it is clear the US had some role, the extent of the role is unlikely to ever be known

  • Posted by Travis Mac

    To all those who criticize US inaction as signs of weakness, what course of action do you suggest? Sanctions could hurt US, British and other Western business almost as bad as it would hurt Russia. Military options are not realistic… Crimea’s strategic value to the US is not nearly as important as other nations like Bahrain. So again, what form of action would be meaningful and realistic outside of what has already been suggested by the white house? Remember Russia is a permanent member of the UN security council making it exponentially harder to implement meaningful punishment without risking future US strategic planning.

  • Posted by Beatrix139

    The Russians have no intention of blowing anyone up—this isn’t the 1960s. But they have every intention of stepping into the power vacuum created by Obama.

    The day Reagan took office, the Iranians released every single American hostage. And the wisdom of the arms for hostages can certainly be debated, but Reagan got practically every hostage held by Hezbollah back alive. The Iranians were never a danger to America while Reagan was President. There are so many good Iranians out there—a good American President might even help them to get into power.

    Putin better be careful. When Americans go back to the polls in under 3 years, we’re going to be fighting mad. There will never be another Obama/Carter in our lifetimes.

  • Posted by EMT

    I know from the army, if someone is weak, he’s weak. He should go out of the way. Since Obama became President he wanted to teach us about the strategy of a huge country like the United States of America. Russia is militarily weaker today, than it has been before. It wants to grab all it can, to gain more power. We know that Putin is a KGB man. Those people gamble. Obama knows this well, but he already showed Putin our weakness before, by giving up many strategic positions such as the missile defense system in Europe and in other places. After Germany’s invasion, we cannot let anyone so easily scare the European countries, while we are standing aside doing nothing. It’s not a question of moving troops, for now, but to stay firm and do some maneuvres in Poland and the Czech Republic, and move an airplane carrier into a strategic position. By doing nothing we attract weakness and trouble. We have already been too silent about Iran.

  • Posted by db

    ah, Bush administration was in tail-end of its time with a full blown financial crisis taking all its focus. Obama is in the middle of his last term with no such crisis.

  • Posted by ah

    db, your point being what? Therefore since there is no financial crisis Obama should attack Russia? This is exactly the problem with these ephemeral conservative criticisms of Obama’s actions to Ukraine. Most of them a) don’t hold water, and b) don’t offer any solutions or suggestions, simply criticisms.

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