The greatest trick Vladimir Putin ever played was to prosecute the first cross-border ground war in Europe in generations in a way which bored the West into losing interest in it.
Since February, Russia and Ukraine have been at war. The most overt campaign in this conflict was Russia’s brazen invasion and annexation of the Crimean peninsula, but Moscow has been waging a covert operation to destabilize eastern Ukraine since March. The frontlines have shifted, Kiev’s forces have enjoyed victories and setbacks, and Russia’s level of direct involvement in the conflict has varied in the intervening months, but the conflict itself remains a constant.
The slow boil that is Russia’s intervention in east Ukraine has thoroughly cooked the Western frog. Save for the unmitigated horror that was the downing of a passenger airliner over Ukraine on July 17, the West has largely tuned out of developments in Eastern Europe.
The administration has played a part in the decision to take the pressure off of Putin. On August 8, United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power warned Russia that, if it’s unsanctioned “humanitarian aid” convoy entered Ukraine without Kiev’s approval, the United States would consider this an unconcealed act of war.
“Any further unilateral intervention by Russia into Ukrainian territory – including one under the guise of providing humanitarian aid – would be completely unacceptable and deeply alarming,” she said. “And it would be viewed as an invasion of Ukraine.”
After days of delay, the convoy penetrated Ukraine’s borders on August 22. Officials in Kiev described the move as a “direct invasion,” and the incursion was accompanied by a military assault. “Russian artillery support — both cross-border and from within Ukraine — is being employed against the Ukrainian armed forces,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen declared that same day.
But the United States did nothing. It was just another red line which President Barack Obama’s administration set and pretended never existed when it was violated.
On Tuesday, the United Nations human rights office in Geneva implicated the pro-Russian separatists in repugnant crimes of war:
Pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine are guilty of a wide array of human rights abuses, including murder, abductions and torture, and are receiving a “steady supply” of sophisticated weapons and ammunition, according to a U.N. report obtained by Reuters.
“Armed groups continue to commit killings, abductions, physical and psychological torture, ill treatment, executions, murder and other serious human rights abuses,” the report said, adding that violations were “disproportionately targeting civilians.”
Today, Russia’s involvement in the war in Ukraine is more overt than it had been in past months. On Wednesday, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk sounded the alarm about Russian army units operating in the open in east Ukraine.
This is the scene in the war zone that is eastern Ukraine today:
The West is weighing a response, but it is one that will ultimately come too late:
On Wednesday, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk warned that Russia plans to cut off the gas flow to Europe in the middle of the coming winter as the head of NATO said that soldiers would be deployed for the first time at new bases in Eastern Europe to counter Russia movements.
“Tellingly, throughout this crisis, no prominent Western leader has seen it fit to make a major address to explain what is at stake in Ukraine and to request significant sacrifices to advance Western goals,” Kissinger Associates Managing Director Thomas Graham wrote in Politico Magazine. “Indeed, it was the upsurge of public outrage over the downing of Flight MH17 and the desecration of the crash site that compelled reluctant European governments to accede to the more stringent sectoral sanctions against Russia. But with that outrage subsiding, the preference remains to focus on what both governments and publics see as their more salient domestic political and economic challenges rather than divert resources to either punish Russia or help Ukraine.”
And where is the mass media in the United States? Are there simply too many crises for producers and editors to handle at once? Do they believe that American news consumers cannot compartmentalize crises boiling in places like Libya, Iraq, Syria, Missouri, the South China Sea, and Ukraine simultaneously?
For better or worse, this administration is led by the nose to addressing crises overseas by the media. The tenor and intensity of the press’s coverage of threats to the geopolitical order abroad dictate the level of White House concern and, eventually, involvement in trying to resolve those crises. Today, the press has lost interest in Russia’s slow but steady invasion of Ukraine, and so has the administration.
As autumn approaches, Putin enjoys a freer hand than ever to act with impunity inside the former Soviet Republic. War has returned to Europe, the 23-year-old post-Cold War order has crumbled, and too few seem to care.