Confronting Putin's Invasion

On the last day of February and first day of March, Russia’s mendacious foreign and defense ministers told their credulous U.S. counterparts that Russia had every intention of respecting Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity. Of course, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is virtually the poster child for Henry Wotton’s famous definition of a diplomat as someone sent abroad to lie for his country. Russian assurances to their U.S. counterparts during the war in Georgia in 2008 were equally deceitful. Lavrov’s duplicity during the Georgia war negotiations that year was so outrageous that French president Nicolas Sarkozy, according to witnesses, at one point grabbed him by the lapels and called him a liar to his face. 

The crisis in Georgia was a serious matter but unfortunately came in the midst of an American presidential election and at the tail end of an administration that was both physically and psychologically exhausted after seven years of war. The serious but unsuccessful effort to impose costs on Russia was complicated by the fact that Georgia’s impetuous president, Misha Saakashvili, had ignored U.S. cautions, risen to the bait, and carelessly stepped into the trap set for him by Vladimir Putin. When Bush administration witnesses testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in September 2008 (full disclosure: the author was one of the witnesses), some Democrats on the committee, notably including then New York senator Hillary Clinton, hinted darkly at a Bush administration conspiracy that had somehow orchestrated the war (implicitly to assist John McCain’s presidential election campaign), although her own experience appears to have soured her a bit on Putin.

After the Obama team took over, its members demonstrated minimal sympathy for the Georgians (who were facing their own internal political problems) since any close attention to Russia’s continued violations of the agreements that ended the war would detract from the new administration’s efforts to “reset” relations with Russia. Although Secretary of State John Kerry now has virtually denied there ever was a “reset” policy, it was aimed at securing Russian support for the president’s overriding nonproliferation objectives, particularly with regard to Iran, and at securing Russian support for the U.S. effort in Afghanistan, specifically the northern distribution route for supplying NATO forces (later, Russian support on Syria would be added to the list). The purchase price for this was scaling back U.S. missile defense efforts in Central Europe and a sweetheart deal in the New START Treaty, which required the United States to dismantle nuclear force structure while allowing Russia to build up its strategic nuclear forces to the agreed treaty levels while totally ignoring Russian theater nuclear weapons.

The administration’s failed efforts at reset are now obvious for all but the most deluded to see. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine presents the United States and its European allies with what is commonly conceded to be the biggest test of European security since the end of the wars of the Yugoslav succession in 1999. As was the case in Georgia, there will be a strong temptation to find a face-saving agreement that papers over Putin’s gains in order to trumpet the “success” of a negotiated, diplomatic outcome and allow the international community to return to its normal torpor. It can’t be said enough that any outcome that allows Putin to wrest either Crimea or other parts of Ukraine from Kiev’s control should not be acceptable. He should not be allowed to maintain the ill-gotten gains of his aggression. As Obama’s former NATO ambassador has said, “this isn’t just about Crimea.  This is about who is ultimately in control of Ukraine.”

Why does Ukraine matter so much?  

First, it matters because—despite Putin’s risible claims of anti-Russian violence in Crimea and eastern Ukraine (even Angela Merkel reportedly told President Obama that she thinks Putin is “in another world”)—this is military aggression against a neighboring independent state in the heart of Europe that violates the U.N. Charter and the Helsinki Final Act. Moreover, the pretext upon which it is based, protection of Russian national minorities in Ukraine, could also be used against NATO member states like Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and under Article 5 of the NATO treaty, “an armed attack against one [member state] .  .  . shall be considered an attack against them all.” The future viability of the alliance is at stake here.

Second, if Putin can pull off a smash and grab operation against Crimea without being made to pay a serious and significant price, others will draw their own conclusions. Would the “international community” exact a price subsequently if China seized the Senkaku Islands or even Taiwan? Would Pyongyang or Tehran conclude that it might have more leeway for aggressive moves against its neighbors?

Third, there is a huge nonproliferation issue (allegedly the president’s highest national security priority) at stake. Ukraine, as one of the successor states to the former Soviet Union, found itself in 1991 with nuclear weapons on its territory to which it laid claim. It was one of the Clinton administration’s signal diplomatic achievements to have gotten Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan to agree to return the nuclear weapons on their respective territory to Russia, leaving one nuclear weapons state on the territory of the former USSR rather than four. In return, the United States, United Kingdom, and Russia all signed, along with Ukraine, the Budapest Memorandum, which accompanied Ukraine’s adherence to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Inter alia, that document committed Russia to “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” and imposed on Russia an “obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defense or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.” If left standing, Russian aggression will establish that security assurances offered by the nuclear weapons states to states that willingly give up their nuclear weapons or weapons programs mean precisely nothing.

What is to be done? Several commentators have suggested there are no military options and effective diplomacy and soft power are the order of the day. This trope of the mainstream media implicitly supports the Obama administration’s standard response to criticism—any alternative to the current policy would result in a “war” that would require U.S. “boots on the ground.” Such either/or thinking totally ignores a range of more forceful middle options that would, in this case, give the president more tools with which to manage the crisis.

The first order of business is clearly to reinforce Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity. Dispatching Secretary Kerry to Kiev was a valuable first step, but it would have been better had he been accompanied by either Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel or the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey. Kerry needs to be followed by a long line of NATO and EU foreign ministers to consult, guide, and reassure the Ukrainian interim government. Shoring up the Ukrainian economy (in conjunction with the EU) is obviously the most immediate and important signal to be sent. It would be good, however, to dispatch a military needs assessment team to identify crucial shortfalls in the Ukrainian military and to lay the basis for urgent and longer-term military assistance programs on a bilateral U.S.-Ukraine basis. This should be done in coordination with (and as a stimulant to) a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission as recently recommended by former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe James Stavridis. The commission could help share intelligence with the Ukrainians but also assist them with planning a more targeted NATO military assistance program.

A second necessary step is to strengthen NATO’s deterrent posture and ability to reassure allies. Reinforcing the NATO air policing mission in the Baltics is a good beginning, but this will also require a thorough reconsideration by the alliance of the self-abnegating undertakings it assumed at the time of the NATO-Russia Founding Act in 1997. The alliance should consider whether and how it wants to position ground combat forces on the territory of the former Warsaw Pact states that now are members of NATO. It should also reconsider the so-called three no’s—no intention, no plan, no reason to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of the new NATO members. Bringing NATO military power closer to the borders of Russia would impose a real cost on the Russian military and might cause nationalists who support Putin’s current course to reconsider. All of this would need to be accompanied by a large increase in the defense budget, much like the one Jimmy Carter obtained after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. A jolt to the budget—at least to the levels proposed by Secretary Gates in 2011—would signal an end to the relative decline in U.S. military power over the past four years that, in Secretary Hagel’s words, has meant that “we are entering an era where American dominance on the seas, in the skies, and in space can no longer be taken for granted.” That would send a powerful and unwelcome message to those in both Moscow and Beijing who are betting on the end of the unipolar world.

Finally, we need to undercut some of the tools of economic and political influence that Russia has wielded so effectively in Ukraine and elsewhere. The administration’s sanctions targeting corrupt individuals who are complicit in Russian military action in Ukraine are all well and good, but they must hit the malefactors around the head kleptocrat—Vladimir Putin. Russia’s use of oil and gas to intimidate and sway can also be a target. It is time for the U.S. government to enable industry to export oil and natural gas and facilitate the infrastructure for doing so—by building a liquefied natural gas export terminal on the East Coast, for example, turning the United States effectively, as one former Bush administration official has suggested, into an “arsenal of energy.”

If all of this sounds a bit familiar, perhaps reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s successful policies in the 1980s, it shouldn’t be a big surprise. During the third presidential debate in 2012, President Obama derided the courses of action recommended by Governor Mitt Romney by saying that “the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.” There are many words that the president will have to eat in light of the past week’s events. He ought to start with those.

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