Talking While Ukraine 'Teeters on the Brink'

At least it appears the U.S. administration has few illusions left about Russia's further designs on Ukraine, from which Vladimir Putin last month swiped Crimea. On Sunday, as Russia pressed ahead with a similar script in eastern Ukraine, the State Department put out a cascade of statements detailing Russia's campaign of causing bloody trouble in order to justify intervention.

The State Department's diplomatic blog carried a report that in Ukraine this weekend "Coordinated, well-armed Russian-backed militants attacked government buildings in a professional operation in six cities in eastern regions. Many of the attackers were carrying Russian-origin weapons and outfitted in bulletproof vests and camouflage uniforms with insignia removed." The State Department press office released a fact sheet titled "Russian Fiction the Sequel: 10 More False Claims," refuting Russia's "false and dangerous narrative to justify its illegal actions in Ukraine."

A State Department media note warned that the methods of the armed takeovers of government buildings in half a dozen cities in eastern Ukraine, apparently planned in advance, "strongly suggest that in eastern Ukraine Russia is now using the same tactics that it used in Crimea in order to foment separatism, undermine Ukrainian sovereignty, and exercise control over its neighbors in contravention of international law."

All of which might be effective if Russia's President Vladimir Putin had a deep and abiding respect for "international law." Or if the U.S. still had a credible policy of supporting and potentially enforcing such concepts with military muscle -- which is the language Putin speaks.

But U.S. credibility is becoming a relic of a bygone era -- fading like the "red line" in Syria, shrinking like U.S. military resources, dwindling like the U.S. nuclear arsenal and worth about as much as the promises to stand (with the international community) against a Russian grab for Crimea. The U.S. default is to talk...and talk... and talk... relying on words, backed by more words; hoping for the grand diplomatic solution (Iran, Syria, the Palestinians, and now Ukraine) as the words carry ever less weight. In February, as Russia threatened Ukraine's Crimea, President Obama declared that "The United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine." In March, as Russia was in the process of annexing Crimea, Obama said that "the United States has mobilized the international community in support of Ukraine to isolate Russia for its actions" and noted that "We saw this international unity... when Russia stood alone in the Security Council defending its actions in Crimea."

Evidently, the Kremlin has decided that its armed provocateurs backed by 40,000 troops on the eastern border of Ukraine will trump any amount of isolation at the UN Security Council. This was excruciatingly clear at an emergency meeting of the Security Council Sunday evening. It was the Security Council's 10th meeting this year on Ukraine, and there was no sign that it was any more successful at corralling Russia than the previous nine. Not that this should be a surprise, given that Russia holds one of the Permanent Five veto-wielding seats -- meaning that an actual resolution, whatever that might be worth, is out of the question.

But the debate was illuminating, not only for the abundance of the usual gibberish in the face of genuine crisis, but also for the lack of any serious threat, from any quarter, that might compel Russia to back away from Ukraine (Crimea, which Russia is now digesting, figured less as a point of current contention than as an example of behavior Russia is urged not to repeat). Here was the supreme conclave of the "international community," and for about two hours, the Security Council debated.  There was a briefing from a UN assistant secretary-general, Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, who warned that Ukraine "teeters on the brink." Luxembourg's envoy pronounced his government "deeply concerned." China produced a heap of potted language about the need for "constructive dialogue." Nigeria said that the world has graduated from the adventures of past centuries, deplored "spheres of influence" and called for a "diplomatic solution." There was plenty of praise for Ukraine's "restraint" -- which, as the Wall Street Journal's Bret Stephens noted a few weeks ago, is less a function of being restrained than of being outgunned.

America's UN ambassador, Samantha Powers, went a step beyond the State Department's implied accusations of the day, spelling out that the "instability" in Ukraine "was written and choreographed in and by Russia." Ukraine's UN ambassador, Yuriy Sergeyev, went beyond that, to the real point, describing the armed provocations not as "instability," but as "a war which Russia is waging against Ukraine."

Russia's UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, dismissed it all. He described as "terrorists" the Ukrainians whose protests ousted former pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych. He accused the U.S. of making false accusations about Russia. With Ukraine threatening military operations to stop the armed takeovers within its own borders, Churkin threatened that Russia would regard any such action by Ukraine as a provocation encouraged by the U.S., involving "criminal use of force."

The Security Council adjourned. Ukraine is no safer for that meeting. This week will bring more talking, in Geneva. European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has pronounced herself "gravely concerned," reiterated the EU's "strong support for Ukraine's unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity" (or what's left of it) and called upon Russia to do the same.  Next week, Vice-President Joe Biden is scheduled to visit Ukraine, a prospect that Russia's ambassador mocked at the Security Council meeting -- suggesting Biden phone ahead and tell the Ukrainian government to refrain from using force. Shades of the Cold War, which may be over at the White House, but in too many other venues is rising from the grave -- with the difference that while Washington is mobilizing the talking shops of the "international community," Russia is mobilizing its troops.