Now that we are distracted by the war against the Islamic State, what should the U.S. do in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine — in a way that deters future aggression and encourages regional peace?
The Obama administration and NATO have made some modest progress in reacting to Putin’s aggression. They have imposed some sanctions and created a 4,000 troop “rapid reaction force” that would rush to the rescue in the event of new Russian aggression elsewhere. In the mind of of Putin and his strategists, however, these actions are not serious. As the Russians measure the “correlation of forces,” the Obama/NATO actions send a signal of weakness, not strength. They will not deter.
Russian interventions in its “near abroad”
Russian strategic intentions in the “near abroad” have been clear for years. Russia’s national security doctrine specifies that it has the right to intervene militarily to protect Russian speakers living in neighboring countries. This doctrine, which is completely contrary to international law, was officially codified in 1992-3.
Since then, Russia has meddled in the internal affairs in all of the former Soviet “union republics.” This involves: intelligence penetration; the buying up and the control of local companies by FSB and Russian mafia-controlled corporations; energy blackmail; financial and other support of political factions and leaders within these nations; and Russia’s longstanding divide-and-rule/conquer policy. This last policy entailed pitting one ethnic or religious group against another, including perpetrating or inciting pogroms. Examples included pitting Azeris against Armenians, Meskhet Turks against Uzbeks, Abkhazians and South Ossetians against Georgians, Gagauz and Russians against Moldovans, Russians against Estonians, Lithuanians against Poles, and now Russians against Ukrainians and Poles against Ukrainians.
Russia has also sought to cast the shadow of its power over NATO countries in East/Central Europe. In addition to pervasive intelligence and commercial penetration, it is likely that the Russians sabotaged the Polish presidential aircraft containing a large percentage of Poland’s leadership that crashed in Smolensk — a leadership that, compared to other Polish leaders, was disproportionately jealous of maintaining Poland’s independence from Russian influence. What is clear here is that there was foul play: explosions that occurred before the plane actually crashed.
A weak American response
In the face of all of this, President Obama’s policy has been silence, willful blindness, or appeasement.
In reaction to Putin’s invasion of Georgia, Washington embarked on its “reset” policy to reduce tensions with Moscow.
In the face of the Smolensk crash, which, if it was indeed Russian sabotage, would have been an act of war against a NATO ally, the Administration failed to call for an international investigation. Instead, it stood silently by as Moscow unambiguously adulterated the crash site and issued a coverup report.
We signed the “New START” agreement that serves no U.S. strategic interest. Moscow continues to modernize its strategic forces in spite of this treaty, which was signed even though the U.S. government knew that Moscow was violating the INF Treaty (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) of 1987.
We abandoned the deployment of an ABM system in Poland and the Czech Republic, and did so in a truly undiplomatic fashion, without consulting and reassuring these NATO allies. The unambiguous message to Moscow was that we were willing to bend over backwards to accommodate its interests.
Weakness is provocative
Now our lack of seriousness in response to Russia’s moves in Crimea and eastern Ukraine will do nothing but tempt Moscow to continue its aggression elsewhere and seek to achieve a long-sought goal: the breakup of NATO.
Putin has questioned the historical validity not only of an independent Ukraine, but also of Kazakhstan. It has created incidents in the Baltic states, including the arrest of an Estonian official and the interdiction of a Lithuanian fishing boat. To break up NATO, Russia just needs to show that the alliance’s security guarantees are worthless at the margin. By the time NATO’s ministers respond to a Russian covert action in Latvia and deploy the “rapid reaction force,” Latvia could very well have been swallowed up. If Moscow’s “separatist” provocateurs seize just a small part of Latvia, one can envision American editorials asking the equivalent of “Why die for Danzig?” When Article 5 proves worthless, NATO members will get the message: forget the useless alliance and make independent security arrangements with Moscow. This process may even be already underway.
The vital U.S. national interest
Ultimately, our policy must be shaped by our vital national interests. The first of these in this region is ensuring that all the countries of Europe remain well behaved toward one another. If Europe is at peace, economic development and international trade are maximized, not only to Europe’s benefit, but to ours as well.
NATO was expanded to do just this, and it has been a wildly successful investment. Membership in NATO gave its new members the incentive to suppress the temptation to irredentism and the igniting of conflicts arising from members of one national group living as a minority in a neighboring country.
It is also a vital national interest to ensure that Russia channel its energies into constructive policies of internal economic development and security from genuine threats. So, Russia must first be deterred and then only then invited to cooperate on matters of real mutual interest: preventing the expansion of Islamist terrorism and containing Chinese expansionism.
Finally, it is a vital national interest to ensure that we retain credibility as an ally and that we retain true alliance relations with many countries whose cooperation we will surely need in future situations.
To realize these vital interests, the U.S. needs to send Russia, its neighbors, and the world signals of strength so that we retain our credibility both as an adversary and as an ally. The first step in this process is to re-establish credible deterrence — a task which has been made all the more difficult given the Administration’s weak policies.
Serious deterrence will require:
- Reversing the debilitating cuts in our defense posture. While this means replacing weapons and materiel lost in our recent wars as well as modernizing our weaponry, it also means preserving the human capital in our armed forces — leaders who cannot be replaced nearly as quickly as arms — who are slated to be permanently removed from our armed services.
- Shoring up our allies in the region, particularly the Baltic States, Poland, and Romania.
- Supplying those allies with more advanced weapons, especially missile defenses.
- Deploying greater numbers of U.S. and NATO troops in those countries on a permanent basis and ensuring that they are well armed. Such a tripwire would be a true deterrent. Given Russia’s violations of the INF Treaty and the CFE Treaty (Conventional Armed Forces in Europe), the United States should not hesitate for a moment to make such deployments.
- Deploying the most advanced ABM system in Poland and Czech Republic.
- Arranging for Ukraine to receive adequate defensive arms so that Moscow cannot persist in its aggression without paying a high price.
- Ensuring that our sanctions reinforce our credibility and seriousness.
While the Administration has leveled a number of sanctions, there are signs that Moscow has a scornful attitude toward them. In light of this, there are measures that deserve the most serious consideration. One strategy that must be considered is a cooperative effort within NATO to have some alliance members purchase weapons and other products that were originally bound for Russia but which are being withheld as part of the current sanctions regimen. An effort of this sort can help minimize the pain that individual countries and their affected industries may suffer as a result of these sanctions, thus providing an incentive to continue to cooperate in a theater that required a common approach. An example here would be the purchase — perhaps even for our own ship-deprived Navy — of the Mistral destroyers that France has been constructing for Moscow.
Trumping Russian energy blackmail
As many have commented, among the most important steps that can be taken here are those that would deprive Russia of its ability to conduct energy blackmail against Ukraine and against many of our NATO allies in Europe. An active policy — in contrast to the Administration’s passivity, if not obstruction — of seeking national energy independence, is long overdue. This would be the first step in what should be an urgent effort to supply U.S. oil and liquefied natural gas to our European allies and Ukraine.
Another urgent initiative is for our government to supply Ukraine and our European allies with the new revolutionary EM2 nuclear reactor developed by General Atomics. This tiny reactor can be transported on the back of a flatbed truck. It is much safer than existing reactors, as it is helium cooled, much less vulnerable to melting down, and so small that it can be buried. It transforms nuclear waste into power. It is much less vulnerable to nuclear proliferation abuse. And this small unit can supply all the power needs for a city of 333,000 people.
U.S. government expenditures for such a reactor are national defense expenditures, and the benefits that they would supply us and our NATO allies far outweigh their cost — which is negligible in national strategic terms. (It should also be mentioned that a good supply of these reactors should be available within the United States as an insurance policy against the threat of the shut-down of the nation’s entire electrical grid by an electro-magnetic pulse (EMP), whether it comes from a nuclear attack or from solar storm activity.)
Countering Russian propaganda
What no one is talking about but which needs to be implemented urgently is a broad-scale informational campaign to counter Moscow’s extraordinary propaganda and perceptions management efforts. Such a campaign would put Putin on the political defensive by exposing the ongoing record of Russian violations of the sovereignty of its neighbors, Russian violations of its solemn international obligations, and Russian criminality that extends from its suppression of independent media to the assassination of its political enemies in foreign capitals. Putin charges that the new government in Ukraine is illegitimate. The irony is that Putin’s own election was so laden with corruption and manipulation that his own legitimacy is subject to even more question.
Another issue that deserves much greater exposure is the fact that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine constitutes a violation of the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. In this agreement, signed in 1994, Russia pledged to respect the sovereignty of Ukraine within its current borders. In return, Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons. None of the other signatories, including the U.S., have done anything to ensure compliance with this agreement.
Russian propaganda, disinformation, and covert influence operations need to be analyzed and exposed. Moscow conducted the Crimean intervention on the basis of specious claims about how their countrymen in Crimea were allegedly endangered by “fascists” in Kiev. It continues making these charges concerning Russians living in eastern Ukraine. Where is the truth to counter these falsehoods? Where is this Administration’s strategic communication effort?
While Russia has been challenging the legitimacy of post-Cold War borders, an issue could be made of the illegitimacy of Russia’s possession of Kaliningrad, which was never Russian territory, and which never should have remained part of Russia after the collapse of the USSR. Russian rule over considerable non-Russian lands such as those in the Caucasus could be raised before the UN Special Committee on Decolonization.
The protection of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of an independent Ukraine is a matter with serious geostrategic implications for the security of large portions of Europe, as well as the many other independent countries that used to be captive nations within the USSR. The Administration appears now to consider the annexation of Crimea — and maybe even portions of eastern Ukraine — as a fait accompli which cannot be challenged. But if Russia is able to get away with any part of Ukraine, what will stop it from annexing all or part of Moldova, another independent member state of the United Nations? What will stop it from reabsorbing part or all of Kazakhstan? Or, for that matter, taking over the rest of Georgia?
Congress should let the Administration know that its policy of accepting a Russian fait accompli is unacceptable and harmful to America’s efforts to maintain peace in Eurasia.
With a sufficient number of serious signals of American and Western strength, a wise policy of diplomatic action that can discreetly give the Russians a face-saving exit from Crimea and eastern Ukraine would be the first order of business. But such diplomacy will be surely a failure unless Putin and his gang encounter serious disincentives against the continuation of their current aggression.