Obama Plays the Long Game with ISIS and Ukraine
Policy + Politics

Obama Plays the Long Game with ISIS and Ukraine

REUTERS/Larry Downing

With twin crises raging in Eastern Europe and the Middle East as the month of August winds to a close, the Obama administration on Thursday made clear that it is playing the long game. It will take no hasty actions against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – or against Russia, which continued its invasion of Ukraine.

Throughout the week – perhaps the slowest one in Washington’s calendar year, with lawmakers and many government and private workers out of town on vacation – the drumbeat for potential action against ISIS in Syria grew stronger. And as two Russian columns advanced along a third front in Ukraine on Thursday, there were growing questions about what President Obama would do to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Related: Don’t Trust NATO’s Plan to Counter Putin

Early Thursday afternoon, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki insisted that no action in either theater was imminent. “We have a range of tools at our disposal,” Psaki said of the Ukraine crisis. “There are ongoing discussions within the administration.”

When pressed on whether to call the Russian incursion an invasion, Psaki was defensive, telling reporters, “Our focus is more on what Russia is doing, what we're going to do about it, than what we're calling it.” She added Putin still has the opportunity to take an “off-ramp” to end the crisis.

Regarding ISIS, she was equally evasive on questions about the White House’s continuing plan for dealing with the terrorist group. She said the president would consult with allies at the NATO summit that’s set to take place in Wales beginning September 4.

Related: Putin Wants Eastern Ukraine. Let Him Have It

Soon after the State briefing, the White House, perhaps sensing the growing expectation of quick action, announced the president would speak ahead of a National Security Council meeting Thursday evening. But if the press and the public were expecting announcements about imminent strikes – they were disappointed.

Obama told reporters that on both Syria and Ukraine, the United States would wait until the NATO summit to consult with allies to formulate a coordinated response. In the case of Ukraine, Obama said he had spoken with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the two agreed that Russia was behind the escalation in violence.

“We agree … the violence is encouraged by Russia; the separatists are trained by Russia; they are armed by Russia; they are funded by Russia,” Obama said.

Obama explicitly ruled out the use of military force against Russia, but said that an increase in sanctions against the country was an option, though existing sanctions are doing nothing to deter Putin.

Related: Why Germany and Poland Are Winners in the Ukraine Crisis

“In our consultation with our European allies,” Obama said, “my expectation is we will take additional steps, primarily because we have not seen any meaningful action on the part of Russia to try and actually resolve this in a diplomatic fashion.”

Then, on ISIS, Obama said it was too early to determine what steps the United States and its allies would take to confront the jihadist group in Syria.

“I don’t want to put the cart before the horse: we don’t have a strategy yet,” Obama said of the effort to fight ISIS in Syria – a line that reverberated all afternoon in the political echo chamber of Washington. “I think what I’ve seen in some of the news reports suggests that folks are getting a little further ahead of what we’re at than what we currently are.”

Looking Long Term
Obama’s comments, taken together with Psaki’s, make clear that the White House intends to shift the burden for both ISIS and Ukraine onto a broader set of international shoulders. Both Obama and Psaki repeatedly stressed that efforts to stem both crises would be taken together with partners. 

Related: What a Deal Between Ukraine and Russia Could Look Like

“The United States and the international community have been clear through actions that we would not hold back from putting in punitive measures that will have some impact in the long term,” Psaki said.

Edward Goldberg, a professor at Baruch College and the New York University Center for Global Affairs, says Obama’s comments on Ukraine make clear he is playing the long game. Obama knows there is no short-term solution that would stop Putin. Over time, however, the sanctions would take their toll, and Putin’s isolation from the international community would severely damage his standing.

“We can’t look at the German sanction policy in a 24-hour news cycle frame,” Goldberg told The Fiscal Times. “Sanctions take longer.”

“The only thing we could be sure of is that Putin is under tremendous pressure from all sides. In geopolitical terms he has already lost,” said Goldberg. “He has become a prisoner of his [own] policy. He has united the West; made Germany the leader on this issue, a historic nightmare for Russia; cemented the EU/Ukraine relationship; brought NATO back to life; and forced Europe to go into overdrive looking for alternative energy sources.”

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