Kiev, Ukraine
Kiev, Ukraine | Shutterstock

As Ukraine cease-fire falters, Russia is likely the next president’s problem

Some experts say a lame duck presidency has likely emboldened Russia to ignore a cease-fire agreement in Ukraine, despite the president's proposed commitment of billions of dollars to European defense.

President Obama urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to fulfill his obligations with Russian-separatist forces under the Minsk agreement, a deal signed last year that, among other items, calls for a cease-fire and internationally-monitored democratic elections in the Ukraine's easternmost provinces.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev, professor of national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College, told AMI Newswire that Russia is capitalizing on the shift in international focus to Syria, in order to gain an upper hand in the Ukraine conflict.

“The calculus of the Kremlin has begun to change,” Gvosdev said. “[It thinks that] now is the time to change the facts on the ground more in favor of Moscow.”

On Ukraine, the Obama administration has largely avoided unilateral action since tension erupted in Ukraine two years ago, choosing instead to act through European partners. The Minsk agreement calls for changes in the Ukrainian constitution and an election scheduled in the eastern province to be monitored by the Europe-based Office of Security and Co-operation in Europe.

OSCE Secretary General Lamberto Zannier said in a press conference with reporters Sunday in Munich that progress on the agreement was “at its worst” since last fall. The agreement’s provisions were supposed to be completed by the end of 2015.

In his proposed budget release last week, Obama quadrupled the money committed to a non-discretionary part of the defense budget known as “Overseas Contingency Operations,” including roughly $3.4 billion into a program aimed at European defense. Although Obama’s budget is unlikely to move through Congress in its current form, the increase in spending in Europe is something that is likely to have bipartisan support. However, he warned that the money committed would not realistically begin flowing until the next president has taken office - a position that Putin seems well aware of.

“It gives Russia the sense that it needs to do something now before the U.S. is in a position to really do anything,” Gvosdev told AMI Newswire.

As part of Saturday’s debate, Jeb Bush went after Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump’s statements that he would “accommodate” Russia in helping to fight ISIS. Bush called  Putin the “biggest global power the West faced,” and said that Russia was “not our ally.”

In his rebuttal, Trump flatly said that the U.S. had to fight one war at a time and that ISIS should be the U.S. prime target. “You can’t fight two wars at one time,” he said.

Gvosdev said that, for the most part, Russia will be interested in candidates that seem the most amenable to negotiations. As an outsider, he said, Trump might not be viewed as favorably, even if Putin appreciates his statements.

“Russians look at the election rhetoric and discount it,” Gvosdev told AMI Newswire. “Putin now has some experience with this.”

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Gvosdev said, might be the preferred candidate by the Russians for no other reason than her experience with international diplomacy as former secretary of state.

In the meantime, the European strategy in Ukraine hinges heavily on an agreement that Gvosdev said was “never too solid to begin with.” President Obama likely will be placed in a tough position if the agreement breaks down entirely, possibly testing his anti-unilateral stance on Ukraine. He added that no one yet publicly knows what European nations plan to do in the event that Russia does not hold up its end of the Minsk agreement.

“If Minsk falls and collapses as a framework, then we’re really back to square one,” Gvosdev said.

Currently, the most strict tool the U.S. has at its disposal in addressing Ukraine is economic sanctions. Gvosdev pointed out, however, that many European officials are pushing for modification of those sanctions.

Speaking at the Munich Security conference on Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry defended sanctions, calling on attendees to remember why they were imposed in the first place. He further criticized the Russian government for not upholding its end of the agreement, including allowing international humanitarian aid groups into the most affected parts of the country.

“Russia has a simple choice: fully implement Minsk, or continue to face economic sanctions,” Kerry said.