The Republicans Are Wrong on Ukraine

March 5, 2014

Karen Tramontano, former Clinton White House Deputy Chief of Staff, is CEO of Blue Star Strategies. All views expressed are her own.

In a speech this week, Senator John McCain made the baffling statement that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the result of a “feckless foreign policy” on the part of the Obama administration.  Even as a Democrat, I have certainly had my disagreements with President Obama’s foreign policy - but on the issue of Vladimir Putin and Ukraine Mr. McCain and his Republican colleagues are quite wrong.

We would likely all agree that during the Bush Administration – like it or not – the U.S. maintained an uncompromising and unambiguous approach to foreign policy. We invaded Afghanistan, then Iraq, and all the while demanded that countries were either “with us” or “against us”. The question was not “if” but “when” the U.S. would take action – be it on the right or wrong side of history.

And what was the result in 2008 when Russia launched a similar provocation against neighboring Georgia?  Lest we forget, our “strong” foreign policy stance did not stop Putin from invading Georgia - indeed, in the wake of that invasion, the U.S. could not even muster a vocal condemnation of Putin’s actions. Georgia today, while still a US ally, has at best an ongoing border dispute with Russia and at worst has permanently lost part of its territory.

Clearly, gone are the days when politics “stopped at the water’s edge” and domestic opponents refrained from cheap attacks on the President during a global crisis. But at the very least Republicans should stop the baseless claims that Putin would be doing anything differently with a different person in the White House. Despite the costs, he is committed to operating as if Russia had a unilateral and fully justified claim on reestablishing the geopolitical sphere of control it enjoyed in a bygone era.

Putin is not only ignoring the U.S. as well as Europe, he is also ignoring the democratic response to the crisis put in motion by the interim leaders in Ukraine. Ukrainians had had enough of the corruption, repressive tactics, and economic mismanagement of President Yanokovich, and they  chose to act – but they did so through petition, protest and the democratic process of parliamentary recall.

It was Parliament, not the Ukrainian armed forces that voted President Yanokovych from office.  And it was Parliament that called for new elections in May. Setting elections and establishing an interim government is not a coup – it represents, instead, the actions of elected leaders who respect the rights of the all people of Ukraine, whether they speak Ukrainian or Russian.

This democratic process must be respected by all countries – including Russia. But it is quite naïve of Republicans to blame this White House for Putin’s lack of respect for democracy; he has quite clearly demonstrated throughout his tenure President, Prime Minister, and again as President that he has no respect for the democratic process, at home or abroad.

The people of Ukraine – in the west, in the east, and in Crimea alike – will have the opportunity to decide their leaders in May. There is nothing particularly unusual, and certainly not undemocratic, about an interim government providing continuity in a time of institutional crisis.

Those nations that support democracy and the peoples’ right to choose must help ensure that the Ukrainian people have an opportunity to exercise their right to vote in the absence of a foreign occupation. The White House, along with many in the international community, is working overtime to ensure that Russia not be allowed to subvert the democratic process through an armed invasion. If Putin wants to lead Crimea so badly, he should resign his post as President and try his luck on Ukrainian ballot in May.

The U.S. and other democracies – while not perfect – stand for the proposition that people should have the right to vote for their leaders. The interim government in Ukraine has moved swiftly to provide the people with that opportunity. President Obama is leading the charge to support them, and those who believe in democracy should get behind him and the U.S. effort rather than use the crisis to play domestic political games.