In Ukraine, a relative respite in the bloody war that has engulfed the eastern oblasts bordering Russia since last February has given way to a humanitarian crisis. “At least 1.1 million people are displaced in the region, while a further 743,000 have left Ukraine because of the conflict between pro-Russia rebels and government forces,” The Guardian reported on Wednesday. “The UN estimates that more than 6,000 people have been killed.”
This breather in the fighting is not the result of both sides abiding by the terms of a February ceasefire deal agreed to in Minsk. That ceasefire was met with even more intense fighting around the strategic railway hub of Debaltseve, which led to the mass capitulation of the Ukrainian forces defending that city.
As the winter snows begin to melt, both sides are gearing up for a promised spring offensive.
“The far-right Azov battalion, whose symbol resembles a black swastika on a yellow background, is preparing to defend the port city of Mariupol in southeastern Ukraine against a widely expected attack by pro-Russian separatists,” a Wednesday Reuters report revealed.
Mariupol, which Azov helped recapture from the rebels last year, is a big prize. Its capture would offer the separatists the chance to open a road further south a year after Russia annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea from Ukraine.
Kiev and the West say Russia drives the rebellion in east Ukraine and has sent in troops as well as weapons to help the separatists. Moscow has sided with the rebels but denies direct military involvement.
With Western officials in fear for the prospects of renewed fighting between sovereign nations in Europe, NATO commanders have ramped up the rhetoric. Beyond condemning Russia in the strongest terms for its direct involvement in the conflict in Ukraine, NATO is conducting military exercises with U.S. troops alongside alliance members in Eastern and Central Europe as well as in the Baltics. The ongoing mission has been dubbed Operation Atlantic Resolve.
And, yet, America’s commander-in-chief appears utterly disinterested in the ongoing war in Europe. According to a report via Bloomberg’s Josh Rogin, the president has inexplicably snubbed NATO’s secretary general:
President Barack Obama has yet to meet with the new head of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and won’t see Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg this week, even though he is in Washington for three days. Stoltenberg’s office requested a meeting with Obama well in advance of the visit, but never heard anything from the White House, two sources close to the NATO chief told me.
The leaders of almost all the other 28 NATO member countries have made time for Stoltenberg since he took over the world’s largest military alliance in October. Stoltenberg, twice the prime minister of Norway, met Monday with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa to discuss the threat of the Islamic State and the crisis in Ukraine, two issues near the top of Obama’s agenda.
Kurt Volker, who served as the U.S. permanent representative to NATO under both President George W. Bush and Obama, said the president broke a long tradition. “The Bush administration held a firm line that if the NATO secretary general came to town, he would be seen by the president … so as not to diminish his stature or authority,” he told me.
It’s not as if the president doesn’t have the time, as if any prior commitment could supersede the importance of American military preparations on the frontlines of an undeclared war with a revanchist Russia. Obama will host an event aimed at increasing interest in the Affordable Care Act on Wednesday and he will deliver a speech on the economy in Alabama on Thursday. Moreover, as the Wall Street Journal reported, the president has gone out of his way to meet with Google executives on a number of occasions.
Rogin wonders if Obama’s decision to ignore NATO’s ranking official in a brazen display will embolden Moscow, and it probably will. But more worryingly is the prospect that the president’s disregard for the security situation in Europe will dispirit nervous allies in places like Warsaw, Vilnius, Tallinn, and Riga, to name only a handful of European capitals nervously eyeing irredentist elements in the Kremlin. Many foreign affairs observers have speculated that Vladimir Putin’s highest aspiration is not the revitalization of Soviet-era dominance in Europe, but the shattering of the NATO alliance.
Would politicians in London, Washington, and Paris commit to the prospect of a major war over the territorial integrity of Estonia? Many believe that these Western powers would decline to invite the apocalypse over the fate of a minor Baltic state, and the Russians know it. If a military provocation from Russia prompted a NATO member to invoke the treaty’s mutual defense provisions, and that call was met with a limited response – or no response at all – it would convince all NATO members that Atlantic Alliance was effectively dissolved.
If American officials were looking at the threat environment in Eastern Europe and the greater Middle East, flaunting the NATO alliance and isolating a nervous Israel seems like the height of irresponsibility. For Obama, however, minor concerns like war and peace have apparently been subordinated by his anxiety over his political legacy.