Even as President Barack Obama released his administration’s new National Security Strategy on Friday, noting the threat of “Russian aggression” and the need to work with European allies, two of the U.S.’s most important partners were in Moscow, hoping to hash out a new cease-fire with Russian President Vladimir Putin without American input.
There were no indications that either German Chancellor Angela Merkel or French President Francois Hollande had consulted Obama on the matter, though U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice said in Washington that she’d been in close contact with the European leaders’ foreign policy offices.
“It’s way too soon to talk about what may be on the table in Moscow today,” she added, an indication that the talks were taking place outside of U.S. direction.
The Times of London said the discussions “left Britain and the United States out of the loop.”
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That two of Europe’s most powerful leaders appeared to have split from a formerly united front and were working toward a new deal on the Ukraine crisis without an American presence or input seemed to leave in tatters one of the biannual strategy document’s major themes.
“We will lead with capable partners,” the document says. “In an interconnected world, there are no global problems that can be solved without the United States, and few that can be solved by the United States alone.”
It goes on, specifically, to talk about the Ukrainian crisis and the American partnership with Europe.
“We mobilized and are leading global efforts to impose costs to counter Russian aggression,” the document says. It adds: “A strong consensus endures across our political spectrum that the question is not whether America will lead, but how we will lead into the future.”
The European leaders made their move for talks in the wake of recent U.S. discussions of sending “lethal defensive arms” to Ukraine and a new nine-page peace plan from Putin. Those potential arms shipments are said to be intended to help Ukraine fight off a Russian-armed, and often Russian-manned, separatist movement in southeastern Ukraine.
The fighting between Ukraine and separatists has become fierce in recent days, and there are fears that U.S. weapons flowing into the war would be an “accelerant,” German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said Friday.
Hollande said the discussions Friday were intended “to prevent total war” in Europe, echoing a common European fear that the United States and Russia might use Ukraine as a site for a proxy war, not unlike how they did 50 years ago in Vietnam. Merkel said from Moscow, “Bloodshed in eastern Ukraine has to end as quickly as possible.” She continued, however, to note that they were meeting “to express the German, French and European interests.”
In the wake of the news, the former top NATO officer for British Prime Minister David Cameron described his onetime boss as “a foreign policy irrelevance.”
Franz Klintsevich, a member of the Defense Committee of the Russian Parliament, told the news agency RIA Novosti that it was interesting that as other national leaders were in Russia trying to “extinguish the fire in Ukraine,” the United States released a report attempting to undermine the effort.
“Peace in Europe is not in the American interest,” he said. He later dismissed the strategy document: “It’s the old song: Russia is the main enemy, along with the Islamic State and the Ebola virus.”
The strategy document notes that the United States – thanks in large part to a strong economy – is “stronger and better positioned to seize the opportunities of a still-new century and safeguard our interests against the risks of an insecure world.”
But the document makes it clear that U.S. security faces challenges such as diseases, international terrorism, cybercrime and “Russian aggression.” It says the United States is “in lockstep with our European allies” on meeting Russian challenges.
“Russia’s aggression in Ukraine makes clear that European security and the international rules and norms against territorial aggression cannot be taken for granted,” the document notes. “In response, we have led an international effort to support the Ukrainian people as they choose their own future and develop their democracy and economy.”
As is the nature of strategy documents, the 29 pages are wide-ranging and filled with generalities.
Rice defended the document Friday in a talk at the Brookings Institution, a research center in Washington, that was streamed on the Internet. “The issue is not simply if we should have been arming Syrian rebels, or if supplying lethal weapons to Ukraine is the right thing to do,” she said. “With this national security strategy, we stake out a much larger role for the United States in the years to come.”
Still, she said “Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is a heinous affront.” She noted that a central point in the strength of their efforts has been the unity with allies regarding Russia.
She spoke while the European leaders were meeting with Putin, however, in hopes of a cease-fire. The left-of-center German newspaper Tageszeitung said that while Germans might not disagree with the Obama administration’s assessment of Russia, Merkel’s mission had strong support. The newspaper noted in an editorial that Putin has broken international law and shares the blame for Ukraine falling apart and for thousands of deaths. The paper said German and European trust in Russia had ended.
But, it went on, “Should the West not answer this violence with weapons? No, it is barely possible to wrestle down the world’s second largest nuclear power, and only if you’re willing to accept suffering of unimaginable dimensions. This may contradict our sense of justice and the urge to hold Putin responsible. But there is no alternative if we want to go back to peaceful coexistence.”
The centrist German newspaper Tagesspiegel noted that there are fears in Ukraine that any deal hashed out among Putin, Merkel and Hollande will overlook Ukraine. Merkel said she wouldn’t take part in dividing Ukraine with Russia.
“We are not traveling to Moscow to broker on the behalf of others,” she said. “We go in European interests, which are keeping the European peace and order.”
Speaking to German television in an interview scheduled to be aired Sunday night, U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., defined that position differently, according to excerpts released Friday.
“The behavior of Europe regarding Ukraine is a huge disappointment,” he said. “But I did not expect anything else. Her politics remind me of the 1930s appeasement politics.”