In Ukraine, NATO has ceased to be an instrument of US foreign policy

In the renewed cold war over Ukraine, while Russia’s economy has been weakened by European sanctions, the US is no longer the hegemon it once was—and NATO is under strain.

Bob Rigg
21 January 2015

Europe's new dividing line. Demotix / Igor Golovniov. All rights reserved.

A recent article on the crisis in Ukraine by Josh Rogin, a prominent member of the US foreign-policy establishment, proceeds from the premise of US exceptionalism which is at its heart. Rogin does not once mention the European Union, whose member states are neighbours and key trading partners of Russia—though the sanctions they have imposed are hindering their own sluggish economies, whereas US trade with Russia is relatively limited. It is almost as though, where American interests are at stake, the interests and views of other key players are of little or no consequence.

The EU states which make up the great bulk of NATO have recently shown that they are no longer willing to support US attempts to extend its mandate to non-members. NATO has recently bowed out of Afghanistan and declined to support Obama’s ‘coalition of the unwilling’ in Iraq and Syria. 

The EU sanctions will almost certainly not be renewed in the middle of 2015, as they already lack the required consensus. The party of the president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, received fewer votes than that of the right-wing firebrand and prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, in last October’s elections. And the deadlocked negotiations to fulfil the Minsk accord will grind on, in spite of the most recent setback with the heavy fighting around Donetsk airport.

The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, made clear she would participate in a meeting of heads of state only when ministers of foreign affairs and others had submitted a draft proposal reflecting a high degree of consensus. The efforts of the foreign ministers of France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia in particular have, however, so far produced nothing resembling a breakthrough. Lack of success in negotiations will slowly undermine Poroshenko, while strengthening the hand of those seeking confrontation with Russia.

Meanwhile, Republican Party factions supporting a new cold war with Russia over Ukraine are temporarily muted, as they struggle to define their short-term domestic and international priorities now that they control the US Congress. It would be useful if the EU could broker a Ukraine deal before their strident war cries inflame the political environment.


Thanks to a leaked telephone conversation, never denied, involving Victoria Nuland of the State Department, we know that the US covertly pumped $5 billion into the hands of sometimes right-wing Ukrainian opposition groups, encouraging and possibly masterminding the unconstitutional overthrow of the democratically elected despot Viktor Yanukovych as president in February 2014. Nuland and the US ambassador to Ukraine were discussing who they favoured to replace Yanukovych, with Yatsenyuk, or ‘Yats’, their favourite.

We still do not know whether Nuland’s activities were approved by her superior, the secretary of state, John Kerry, or the president, Barack Obama, or whether the US is still providing covert support to right-wing factions in Ukraine. If it were, it would be fanning the flames of conflict just as the EU is trying to extinguish them. It is time for Kerry, not normally at a loss for words, to state clearly whether Nuland and the ambassador were acting with his knowledge and consent and whether any such covert activities are continuing.

Ukraine is a political, economic and military basket-case.

The US can act effectively in Ukraine only with the agreement of Germany and other EU states. In today’s increasingly complex world, its only superpower is no longer all-powerful and must act in consultation with others. Its waning political power and plummeting moral authority are imposing serious constraints on its still-formidable military capability—Pax Americana no longer rules.

In this context Germany, under Merkel’s canny leadership, has quietly emerged as a counterweight to the US, in both the EU and NATO. Germany did not support the abortive US-sponsored NATO intervention in Libya in 2011 and it opposed US attempts last year to have NATO endorse Obama’s Iraq intervention against Islamic State. When Merkel was in Australia for the G20 summit in November she said publicly that, for her, war is not an option. Patient negotiation is the only way forward, including with Putin.

Romantic view

Unlike the US, Europe experienced two devastating wars on its own soil in the last century. The US political elite still falls prey to an almost romantic view of war as a necessary means of enforcing compliance with US norms of behaviour. As in western movies, the ‘good guy’, seemingly always American, is morally justified in using lethal force to kill the ‘bad guy’.

Given the decline in the moral authority of the US, its wars increasingly lack universal legitimacy. Since the debacle of the US-led intervention in Libya—opposed at the time by Brazil, China, Germany, India and Russia—neither the United Nations Security Council nor NATO has been dancing to the tune of the Star Spangled Banner.

Ukraine is a political, economic and military basket-case. Poroshenko, visibly at loggerheads with ‘Yats’, recently stated that a military solution is not possible: “We haven't got the resources for an offensive today.” The EU and the International Monetary Fund have made further loans conditional on the implementation of drastic reforms which Kyiv has so far been unable to honour. Fighting continues in the east. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which includes Russia, is working to build confidence by encouraging low-key moves such as the recent provision of coal and electricity by Russia—“without advance payment as a goodwill gesture from President Vladimir Putin”.

Ukraine cannot afford a war and the EU does not want one under any circumstances. Although Putin’s body language is sometimes aggressive, he and his capable foreign minister do not want war either. Although Russia is still a major nuclear power and has become an important international player under Putin, it lacks superpower pretensions. Maybe Obama and the US political establishment will finally realise that war is not even an option, and that, with the active engagement of the EU, a peaceful negotiated solution to the Ukraine crisis is the only way forward?

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