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Obama Plays With Fire in Ukraine


“The U.S. is sending about 600 ground troops to Eastern Europe … to ‘reassure’ allies there as Washington resumes its campaign of pressure on Russia over the Ukraine standoff.”


How many American parents would proudly send their sons and daughters off to kill or be killed in Slovyansk or Donetsk?  How many young men and women aspire to be the first American to fall in Kramatorsk?

Those towns are in eastern Ukraine. President Obama says the “military option” — war, that is — is not on the table in his effort to oppose Russia in the Ukraine crisis, but can we trust him? As pressure mounts on him from America’s war hawks, what will he do when sanctions fail to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to acquiesce? Will the military option then find its way onto that infamous table?

Obama has dispatched 600 soldiers to Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. The U.S. Navy has ships present in the Black Sea, an understandably sensitive matter for Russia, which long has had a naval base in Crimea. That may not sound like a large force, but it takes only one soldier to be a tripwire for greater U.S. involvement in this volatile region. Americans should be uneasy with this recklessness on Obama’s part.

Those four former members of the defunct Soviet bloc are now members of NATO, the very active alliance established after World War II ostensibly to keep the Red Army out of Western Europe. One might have expected NATO to disappear along with the Soviet Union, but something happened on the way to the post-Cold War world. The so-called defensive alliance not only remained in existence; it moved aggressively eastward toward Russia by inducting former Soviet allies and republics as members.

This expansion broke a promise that President George H.W. Bush made to former Soviet chief Mikhail Gorbachev, who was willing to live with NATO in Western Europe even with newly unified Germany as a member. But that state of affairs wasn’t good enough for America’s rulers, who, like most American rulers going back to the 18th century, believed the United States is destined to rule the world. There was no chance that an alliance as useful as NATO was going to go away just because its apparent reason for being had ceased to exist.

The New York Times reports that Obama “and his national security team are looking beyond the immediate conflict to forge a new long-term approach to Russia that applies an updated version of the Cold War strategy of containment.” This is bad reporting because, as noted, the U.S. leadership never ended the Cold War and never saw containment as an obsolete strategy. It would brook no rival of any kind, however friendly or regional.

Since Ukraine is not (yet) a member of NATO, the U.S. government would not have the same formal obligation to intervene should a shooting war break out between Ukraine and Russia. But what if something happens between Russia and Poland or one of the Baltic states? Under Article 5 of the NATO treaty, an attack on one member is regarded as an attack on all. But it also says,

If such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence … will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area. [Emphasis added.]

That amounts to wiggle room, but Americans should not be comforted. Could Obama withstand the immense pressure he would face to intervene directly if open hostilities broke out? How would he handle what David Brooks of the New York Times calls Obama’s “manhood problem”? (Apparently, one is manly to the extent one is willing to risk a senseless war.)

The U.S. government’s and news media’s demonization of Putin (who’s no saint) should not be allowed to overshadow the fact that America’s rulers have needlessly provoked the Russians, the coup in Kiev being just the latest example. In 1998, the architect of the postwar containment policy, George Kennan, warned that humiliating Russia by expanding NATO “is a tragic mistake.”

Must we learn this the hard way?

Sheldon Richman  is vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation in Fairfax, Va. (

Sheldon Richman, author of the forthcoming America’s Counter-Revolution: The Constitution Revisited, keeps the blog Free Association and is a senior fellow and chair of the trustees of the Center for a Stateless Society, and a contributing editor at

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