L'Enfer Est Plein de Bonnes Volontés et Désirs
As we ratchet up sanctions and further threats of sanctions against Russia it might be heuristically helpful to think about how the U.S. government's escalatory algorithm works. Most substantive content in U.S. demands will come from the Department of State. Within State, the European Bureau produces most of the grist for the mill, supervised by the Undersecretary for Political Affairs, the Deputy Secretary of State and, to some extent, the Office of Policy Planning. Other players at State could add to the mix, as could staff at the NSC, possibly Treasury, and possibly a few other agencies, but most actionable items first will run through the State Department's ordinary chain of command — in this case dominated by the European Bureau — up to John Kerry.
The Assistant Secretary for European Affairs, Victoria Nuland, is a neocon hawk who would like nothing better than to wipe Vladimir Putin's eye. The Deputy Assistant Secretary for Ukraine, Eric Rubin, is a flunky of slightly above average ability. I knew Eric. He worked in the same office I did when I was the Yugoslav Desk Officer. He was less than memorable in every respect. I have not the slightest doubt that his main preoccupation at the moment is how to appear to be even more of a neocon than his boss. The Office Director for Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus Affairs, a fellow named Michael Scanlan, who I've never heard of, doesn't appear, to me, to have had a particularly successful career and is a bit long in the tooth for the job he has. The two desk officers for Ukraine are both young, inexperienced, new to the job, and untested.
The current U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey R. Pyatt, an individual who is in a role where he also could potentially shape policy, is not a European specialist and has little relevant background. Looking at his resume one might imagine him to be an above average technocrat except that all one has to do is listen to a few minutes of the leaked intercept of his call with Victoria Nuland to realize he's just another craven career bootlicker. State, sadly, has been selecting and promoting just such for many years.
If any common sense were to be injected into the sanctions policy it would have to come from higher up. But the Under Secretary for Political Affairs, Wendy Sherman, is an ignorant apparatchik; the Deputy Secretary of State, the notorious Bill Burns — although undoubtedly smarter than the rest of them put together — would not know how to step out of line even to save baby Jesus; and the head of Policy Planning, someone named David McKean, has been a personal water carrier for Kerry for many years. The higher ranks will not produce dissent.
Absent dissent, the machinery of State will churn out endless iterations of demands and, when those demands aren't met, ever harsher threats.
It's really up to the principals, Kerry and Obama, to try to steer a course toward de-escalation, but both are headed in the opposite direction.
Russia, it's worth pointing out, is not a small country that the U.S. can slap around until we get what we want. Russia has nuclear weapons, missiles to deliver them, and many options to act in unfriendly ways. So I would ask, is a nuclear arms control regime with Russia, and stability in multilateral relations generally, more important or less important than our so-called (but actually 100% phony) national interest with regard to Ukraine?