RINOcracy.com has been reluctant to add its voice to the cacophony of comment and opinion on the Ukraine crisis, much of it from sources far more knowledgeable than we. Yet it seemed there might be a point to putting down in one place what seem to be the principal issues:
1. Is the annexation of Crimea reversible?
2. Does the occupation and subsequent annexation of Crimea foreshadow a similar incursion into, and possible annexation of, eastern Ukraine?
3. Does Ukraine have the military capacity to resist a Russian incursion into eastern Ukraine or beyond? Should the United States and NATO provide military assistance to Ukraine and, if so, what kind?
4. How serious a threat do the Russian actions in Ukraine represent to other nations of eastern Europe?
5. What is the purpose of economic sanctions and what effect will they have?
6. What is the likelihood of our being drawn into direct involvement in an armed conflict in Europe? If that should occur, are we sufficiently prepared militarily and politically?
The ultimate question is suggested by the statement of NATO Secretary Rasmussen, in Washington on March 19. Calling the Ukraine crisis a wake-up call for NATO, he observed that, “We live in a different world than we did less than a month ago.” The question is whether we are prepared to deal with that different world.
Annexation of Crimea.
It is clear that the annexation of Crimea will not be undone in the near term, and it is even doubtful that restoring Crimea to Ukraine is a realistic long term goal. The incorporation of Crimea into Ukraine was a historical fluke resulting from a unilateral decision by Nikita Khruschev in 1954. While the need to “protect” ethnic Russians in Crimea was bogus, and the referendum in Crimea can fairly be described as illegal, there is seems to be little doubt that a majority of Crimeans would prefer to be a part of Russia.
More importantly, the Crimean port of Sevastapol is of vital strategic importance to Russia, and it is now quite unlikely that any combination of sanctions and diplomacy would persuade Russia to lessen its grip on the port. Conversely, depriving Russia of the port, or even threatening its control, is not an objective that would justify military action by Ukraine or NATO. Theoretically, it might be possible to restore Crimea to Ukraine but under an arrangement that would protect Russia’s interest in Sevastapol. Indeed, Henry Kissinger suggested such a possibility earlier this month. Subsequent developments, however, appear to have taken the possibility such an arrangement permanently off the table.
That is not to say that the Russian incursion into Crimea, or the annexation of Crimea should be acknowledged as legal or proper. They were not. It does mean that our strategy should not be geared to reversing the irreversible. The decision of the Kiev government to proceed with a peaceful evacuation of Ukrainian military personnel from Crimea was entirely sensible.
Eastern Ukraine and Beyond.
Demonstrations of Russians supporters in eastern Ukraine have occurred not only in Donetsk but in ten other cities. It is widely believed that the demonstrations have been organized by Russian agents and, as remarked on the PBS news hour, simultaneous demonstrations in eleven cities is not apt to be a coincidence. It is not clear what Putin has in mind, but his remarks announcing the Crimean annexation were at best ambiguous. While he denied having designs on any other part of Ukraine, he reasserted the right to protect Russians abroad.
In the event of a Russian incursion into eastern Ukraine, it is unclear how effective a military response Ukraine could mount. One view, expressed by Senator Chris Murphy, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is that “The Ukrainians are not going to go down without a fight. If Russia really does decide to move beyond Crimea, it is going to be bloody and the fight may be long.” Perhaps. But it seems inescapable that sooner or later Russia will prevail unless the United States and its NATO allies provide major support. And even then the result might be in doubt.
At this point it seems unlikely that the United States and its NATO allies would become directly involved in combat in Ukraine. President Obama has ruled out a “military excursion” in Ukraine, and on March 14, the United States declined a Ukrainian request for arms, offering only military ration kits. On the other hand, furnishing of equipment, and possibly even military advisers, appears to remain under active consideration. The Secretary General of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, indicated on March 19, that the alliance is considering military aid to Ukraine and that a decision as to what would be furnished will be made at a NATO meeting on April 1-2. Other western officials have described the aid sought by Ukraine as communications gear, mine-clearing equipment, vehicles, ammunition, fuel and medical gear, and the sharing of intelligence. If NATO provides equipment, should it also provide military advisers as urged by the former NATO Supreme Military Commander, Admiral James G. Stavridis?
The reluctance of the Obama Administration to provide arms and equipment to Ukraine, has invited criticism that the Obama has again elected to “lead from behind.” Yet a decision to offer military support does require careful judgment. It might, as Admiral Stavridis argues, deter a Russian incursion. But if it does not, the consequences are unclear. History tells us that furnishing equipment and military advisers is a notoriously slippery slope with an unknown outcome. Indeed, some observers have explicitly suggested stationing United States and other NATO military personnel in Ukraine as a “tripwire” to deter Putin. But others have pointed out that such a tactic could “blow up in NATO’s face.” Writing in BloombergView, James Kitfield cited the botched handling of Syrian chemical weapons to argue that “the U.S. should avoid military tripwires and ‘red lines’ it is not absolutely willing to enforce.”
Russia’s annexation of Crimea has also rattled the Baltic states who were formerly members of the Soviet Union and whose populations include substantial numbers of ethnic Russians: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Although they do not have Crimea’s history as being part of Russia, those countries fall within Putin’s seeming desire to re-write the end of the Cold War and reconstitute the USSR. Moreover, just a day after the Crimean annexation, a Russian diplomat at the UN expressed “concern” over the treatment of Russian-speaking citizens of Estonia and made an express comparison with Ukraine.
The Baltic states differ importantly from Ukraine in being members of NATO and therefore legally entitled to its protection. In other words, their borders are, presumably, a tripwire. Poland, lying next door to the Baltic states, is another NATO member that has been understandably rattled. As Poland was never a part of the Soviet Union, it is seemingly not a candidate for annexation, even in Putin’s eyes. He may, however, aspire to having a strong influence over the country or even exercising the kind of domination that the USSR once wielded over its satellites.
Vice President Biden was dispatched on a well-publicized mission to reassure the Baltic states and Poland of our unwavering support. In practical terms, the extent of the support remains unclear. For the moment, at least, the military support is modest, consisting of some additional F-15 and F-16 fighter jets. How effective the reassurance was remains unclear, and reassurances may also be required for other former Soviet satellites who are now NATO members, most notably for example, Rumania and Bulgaria.
Economic sanctions have frequently been advocated as a means of “punishing” Russia for its actions in Crimea. But economic sanctions and punishment are not necessarily an easy fit. Outside the context of foreign relations, punishment is generally thought of as having five possible elements or purposes: incapacitation, deterrence, restitution, retribution, and rehabilitation. Of those, only deterrence seems relevant to dealing with Russia. Sanctions are not likely to incapacitate Russia from acting aggressively toward the former members of the USSR or its former satellites. Sanctions will not produce rehabilitation, and restitution—restoring Crimea to Ukraine—is unlikely. A desire for retribution is understandable, and doubtless present in many western minds, but it is generally not a useful basis for developing policy. For example, a frequent suggestion is that Russia be punished by removing it from the G-8, but aside from satisfying the felt need for retribution in a small way, it is hard to see what that would accomplish.
In a March 22 editorial, The New York Times appeared to follow others in linking punishment and deterrence. Still, it correctly opposed an immediate expulsion of Russia from the G-8, though leaving it an option as a future step:
[T]he United States, its European and other allies must also continue searching for effective economic ways to punish Mr. Putin and his inner circle, and for ways to deter him from further aggression against Ukraine. These deliberations, as Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain has said, should include the possibility of expelling Russia from the G-8 altogether should it further violate Ukrainian sovereignty and thus close the door to any fruitful dialogue.
It is impossible to know whether any economic sanctions, actual or potential, will deter Russia from further misbehavior affecting Ukraine or other countries of eastern Europe. Notably, however, sanctions are more effective as a threat than when actually imposed. For example, it is not clear what value Russia places on membership in the G-8, but the threat of expulsion is almost certainly worth more as a deterrent than actual expulsion. When sanctions are imposed, they are only a deterrent if they are taken as credible evidence that further misconduct will produce additional and harsher sanctions. This was the message that President Obama sought to convey in his message on March 20, announcing some additional sanctions and threatening others which he referred to only in vague terms as affecting “key sectors of the Russian economy.” The difficulty, however, is that threats of additional sanctions can be an effective deterrent only if they are specific, feasible, and certain to inflict serious economic damage if carried out.
Unfortunately, it is not clear in this case what specific further sanctions will be feasible and what effect they might have. Feasibility will depend on a) what the unwanted consequences of sanctions may be for their sponsors and b) whether there is political will to accept such consequences. It is generally considered that the risk of adverse consequences, either from the effect of the sanctions themselves or from retaliatory measures, is more serious for Europe than for the United States. For example, it is easy to suggest, as one observer has, that Germany “must be prepared to embargo Russian oil and gas” but not so easy to determine what the effect on the German economy would be and how the German public would respond.
Sanctions applied to financial institutions will be truly effective only if joined by other countries, perhaps most importantly Great Britain. But while the British are our closest ally, their full participation may not come easily. An article in The Economist, “Honey trapped,” pinpoints the difficulties that would be encountered in expelling Russian money from London, a city in which it has become deeply entrenched. (“London has more to lose than most when it comes to scaring off oligarchs.”)
There is also a further complication that has been little appreciated. In the context of foreign relations, sanctions have typically been used not as punishment, but to coerce a nation into taking a particular action: South Africa to give up apartheid, North Korea and Iran to restrict their nuclear programs. In such cases, there is at least a semblance of an objective standard as to when the desired action has occurred and sanctions may be lifted. In the minds of some, economic sanctions could coerce Russia into an action: giving up Crimea. But, for the reasons indicated, that is not a realistic strategy. If sanctions have any function here, it is to protect the rest of Ukraine and other countries of eastern Europe from further Russian aggression. But in such a case, where sanctions are intended to deter action indefinitely, it is hard to establish a point when they will no longer be deemed necessary or justified. Sanctions that not only have serious consequences, but have the appearance of being unbounded, may well be more difficult to sell.
In short, economic sanctions are a course worth pursuing, but it is far from certain that they will provide an effective deterrent to Russian aggression.
Military Actions or Preparedness
If the border of a NATO member is seriously violated, the United States as well as the other members, will be called upon to respond, and there is no way of knowing what that response will require in personnel and materiel. Such an eventuality may seem far-fetched, but it is certainly not as far-fetched as it was until recently.
It is clear from the comments of politicians and pundits alike that there is little enthusiasm anywhere for combat in Europe and particularly for “boots on the ground.” After more than a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the country is understandably tired of war. Moreover, we and our European allies are all struggling with economies that are sluggish or worse. Nevertheless, we may need to acknowledge where events might lead us and take a hard look at our preparedness. If, as Secretary General Rasmussen indicated, we are now in a “different world,” it is a world that had not been contemplated by the budget submitted by Secretary Hagel or by Pentagon planners. Writing in The Wall Street Journal on March 9, Jim Thomas pointed out that “the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review, released March 4, …treated Putin’s Russia as an afterthought relative to other global threats.”
The readiness of NATO is similarly open to question. NATO does not maintain a large standing army, but draws military personnel and equipment from members for specific projects. Thus, its ability to assemble an operative force depends on the military capacity of its members, most of whom consistently fail to meet the alliance’s benchmark of spending 2% of gross national product on defense. Less than two months ago, the key issue at the NATO security conference in Munich was reported to be “What is Europe’s role on the global security scene at a time when the continent itself faces no external threats?”
One never wishes to be an alarmist. But if the world is, or may be, as different as it presently seems, surely the preparedness of both the United States and NATO to deal with even darker developments that may lie ahead deserves the attention of the media and the public and careful examination by Congress.