Welcome to the Ukraine war, round two. In recent days, European observers, NATO forces and media outlets have all reported what amounts to a massive influx of Russian war material and personnel into Ukraine — a development that has fanned fears of a fresh cycle of violence between Moscow and Kiev. The news is a timely reminder that the conflict precipitated earlier this year by Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and subsequent efforts at subversion in eastern and southern Ukraine is, in fact, far from over.
Ukrainian politicians visiting Washington in recent days tell an even starker story. According to them, the infiltration of Russian forces into Ukrainian territory is already exceedingly mature, with fully three-quarters of the estimated 20,000 thousand partisans aligned with the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic" and "Luhansk People's Republic" actually of Russian nationality. Russia is also said to have forward deployed significant military assets — including as many as 400 tanks and 200 armored personnel carriers — in the separatist enclaves, where they can be mobilized rapidly for guerrilla warfare against the Ukrainian army.
These same observers believe that a Russian-supported separatist offensive, when it does come, will involve a two-pronged assault into the center of the country via a northern route (toward the city of Slovyansk) and a southern one (toward the town of Melitopol). And if Ukrainian forces succeed in rolling back this onslaught, there will be ample cause for Russia's forces — currently stationed across the border and numbering 40,000 strong — to get involved and defend their "compatriots."
For the Obama administration, news of this new mobilization must be most unwelcome indeed. After all, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko received a decidedly frosty reception when he visited Washington back in September, with President Obama flatly refusing to provide Kiev with anything more than strictly humanitarian assistance. (A frustrated Poroshenko subsequently vented to a significantly more sympathetic Congress that one "cannot win a war with blankets.")
Obama's hesitance in honoring Poroshenko's request was unfortunate, but it was at least somewhat understandable. It is by now clear that "reset" policy toward Russia that served as the cornerstone of the administration's first term foreign policy is well and truly a thing of the past. What is far less apparent, however, is whether the U.S. has formulated an alternative approach for dealing with Moscow. And in the absence of one, the White House is loathe to do anything that might provoke an increasingly aggressive, adversarial Russia.
It's also because — as The New York Times columnist Roger Cohen has astutely pointed out — the White House desperately needs the Kremlin to play ball on a range of other pressing policy issues, chief among them pressuring Iran to come to terms over its nuclear program. Needless to say, that is something Moscow is much less likely to do in the face of real, sustained Western pressure over its conduct in Ukraine.
For Congress, on the other hand, the specter of a resumed Ukrainian-Russian conflict represents an opportunity for leadership. Already, Congressional supporters of Ukraine like Sen. Robert Menendez, D-NJ, have put forth legislation (commonly known as the "Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014") authorizing the U.S. to give Kiev the necessary arms to defend itself. By all accounts, this measure enjoys broad support across the political aisle on Capitol Hill. Weaponizing this sentiment into a prompt, resounding Congressional approval of American assistance is necessary in order to send a clear message to Moscow and to get these arms into the hands of Ukrainian forces in time to make a difference.
The window to do so is narrow indeed. Congress has mere weeks to conduct real work ahead of the coming winter recess. And with other pressing issues, such as a reauthorization of the federal budget, now on the legislative agenda, there is a real danger that foreign affairs matters (Ukraine among them) will get crowded out of the deliberations completely. Should that happen, it would be nothing short of a geopolitical victory for Russia, and a moral and operational defeat for Ukraine's beleaguered pro-Western government.
As recent developments have made painfully apparent, time is of the essence for Ukraine. So, too, is a clear American commitment to assist it in the face of Russian aggression.