Before Russia’s Next Offensive, Obama Should Take the Lead

Burns: Give Arms to Ukraine, More NATO Cover to Baltics—and Leadership for Europe

President Barack Obama has given space for Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel to lead recently in the Western response to Russia’s war on Ukraine. But it’s now time for the US president to take the reins back, writes former Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns.

The evidence is in the results of the cease-fire deal that Chancellor Merkel led in negotiating with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin promptly violated this second truce, as he did the first one, five months earlier. Again, he used the “cease-fire” as cover to seize new territory with his proxy forces in Donbas. 

The US military estimates that 12,000 Russian troops now are in Ukraine, the Army’s commander in Europe said this week. A clutch of recent news reports underscores that Ukrainians now fear a Russian assault soon on the northeastern Ukraine city of Kharkiv or Ukraine’s southern coastline.

Merkel admirably has provided as much strong leadership as can be asked as the leader of an ambivalent country, Burns suggests in an essay this week. Only Obama can now exert the needed leadership in protecting Ukraine—and, by extension, Europe. According to Burns, now a Harvard professor and an Atlantic Council board member, the US government should:

  • provide weapons to Urkaine’s army;
  • press Europe to lead on a bigger economic aid package for Ukraine; and
  • consider bolstering the NATO contingent stationed in the Baltic States.

‘Tougher Measures Needed’

“Despite her many strengths and sterling character, Merkel appears unwilling to combine diplomacy with the tougher measures needed to contain Putin’s territorial ambitions,” Burns argues in the essay, published first in the Boston Globe.

“Obama is the only Western leader who can play this role. He needs to convince Europe to lead a substantially stronger economic aid program for Ukraine’s beleaguered economy and to move toward stronger sanctions against Putin,” Burns writes.

“Obama can also increase pressure on Putin by sending defensive weapons to Kyiv. And he should consider a new move on the chessboard — to station permanently a stronger NATO ground and air contingent in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to shield those three allies from Putin,” Burns says. “Former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, currently a fellow at Harvard, told me this is the most effective way to reaffirm NATO’s Article 5 security commitment to Baltic sovereignty.”

With the danger looming of a Russian springtime offensive to expand the war and seize much more of Ukraine’s territory, Burns writes that “there is no … alternative” to Obama’s leadership “for a stronger US-led coalition to contain the brooding, paranoid Putin — the greatest menace to a democratic Europe in this century.”

Image: Ukrainian troops in the port city of Mariupol stand in a neighborhood of apartment blocks hit by an artillery barrage from Russian-sponsored forces on January 24, 2015. About 30 civilians were killed in the attack, and Ukrainian officials say Russian forces appear to be preparing for a possible assault on the city that analysts have said could come by the spring. (Reuters/ Nikolai Ryabchenko)