By Lili Bayer
U.S. President Barack Obama has about seven months left in office. In July 2008, then-Senator Barack Obama gave a major campaign speech outlining his vision for American foreign policy, where he declared, “Today, the dangers and divisions that came with the dawn of the Cold War have receded. Now, the defeat of the threats of the past has been replaced by the transnational threats of today.”
Like most presidents, Obama’s aims changed significantly as new challenges emerged and evolved – from Russian aggression in Ukraine to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Obama’s second term has been a time of gridlock in terms of many domestic policy goals. But some long-running diplomatic initiatives came to fruition, namely the Iran deal and rapprochement with Cuba.
Nevertheless, as the presidential election nears, pressure is growing in the White House to fulfill some policy goals that the administration worries the next president may not be able to – or may not want to – achieve.
Coming to an understanding with Russia regarding the future of Ukraine before Obama leaves office is now a pressing matter for the White House. National Security Advisor Susan Rice spoke with the Washington Post on June 9 and noted that the U.S. is intensifying its efforts to work with the Russians, Ukrainians, Germans and French to reach a deal and implement the February 2015 Minsk Accords. Rice said, “We are hopeful if the Russians want to resolve this – and we have some reason to believe they might – we have the time and the wherewithal and the tools to do so.”
There are three major reasons the U.S. administration is boosting efforts to achieve at least some progress on the matter of Ukraine over the next seven months. First, there are indications that the European Union is becoming more divided. U.S. policymakers understand that in order to pressure Moscow to make concessions and agree to a deal on the status of Ukraine, at least for the near term, Western powers must be on the same page. The perception of the Russian threat varies across Europe, with some countries more willing than others to make economic and political sacrifices in order to deter Russia.
At the same time, the Kremlin has been working to woo some European governments and political parties. Some European governments are questioning the sanctions regime currently in place. So Western powers’ negotiating position when it comes to Ukraine will likely wane over time. Thus, negotiations now are more likely to yield results beneficial for the U.S. than later.
The U.S. is also in a hurry to reach a deal because negotiations over the future of Ukraine are closely tied to another foreign policy headache: the Islamic State. In her interview, Susan Rice pointed out that U.S. and Russian intelligence, civilian and military experts are in touch with regard to Syria on a daily basis. She outlined that while the administration supports Russian airstrikes against the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, it is trying to dissuade Russia from also targeting other opposition groups. The U.S. needs Russian assistance to make significant progress in Syria, both in battle and in negotiations.
Finally, the Obama administration worries that the next president will not prioritize working with all sides to reach an agreement with the Kremlin over Ukraine. As George Friedman has outlined, Donald Trump has argued in favor of limiting American exposure to international crises and challenges, while Hillary Clinton supports continued commitment to international obligations and maintaining the fixed alliance system.
The implementation of the Minsk agreement and reaching a deal that secures Ukraine requires coordination between Washington, Berlin and Paris. It also means pressuring Kiev to adopt new election laws and persuading both sides to adopt and respect certain security policies on the ground in eastern Ukraine.
Pressuring Russia to respect agreements and deterring the Kremlin from making further military moves in the region also requires the presence of NATO and U.S. troops in the Baltic states and Poland, as well as Western involvement in the Black Sea region. The current administration is working to ensure that the necessary military and diplomatic measures to deter Russian aggression, implement the Minsk agreements and reach some kind of agreement with Moscow about the future of Ukraine will be in place by the time the next president comes to office. But foreign officials – including Ukrainian and Russian leaders – may be hesitant to reach agreements with the current administration due to uncertainties surrounding the upcoming U.S. elections.
The Obama administration is engaged in a race against time, knowing that prospects for a deal with Moscow that suits U.S. interests will erode over time and that cooperation with Russia in Ukraine could further U.S. aims in Syria. The U.S. cannot guarantee that Russia will respect any agreements in the long term, but for the administration, ensuring Ukraine’s security in the medium term and buying time for Eastern Europe while new defense measures are being put in place remain top priorities.