A period of relative calm had pushed Ukraine out of the center of media and public attention for a brief time when President Petro Poroshenko addressed Congress on September 18. It is, however, a situation that we dare not lose sight of for very long. President Poroshenko gave an eloquent speech that drew several standing ovations. He may be Ukraine’s most important single asset: a leader of vision, courage and pragmatism. While it is doubtful that Ukraine will receive the weaponry that he seeks, Poroshenko gave the impression that he will find a way for Ukraine to survive.
American assistance to Ukraine thus far has been limited to furnishing non-lethal material. President Poroshenko made it expressly clear that he was seeking lethal as well as non-lethal assistance (“Blankets and night-vision goggles are important, but one cannot win a war with blankets.”) But the White House was, for the moment at least, unmoved. As The Wall Street Journal reported:
Meanwhile, the White House on Thursday also announced a new $53 million aid package for Ukraine, which includes counter-mortar radar, radios, vehicles, patrol boats, body armor, helmets and night-vision goggles. But while this package goes well beyond the small amounts of similar nonlethal aid the U.S. has already delivered and contains important new gear such as the radar, it stops short of promising actual weapons and other lethal aid the Ukrainians have been seeking.
The refusal to provide more robust aid is reportedly based on a concern that Russia might view it as a provocation and an excuse for escalating its own participation. That is not a groundless concern. Moreover, providing significant military equipment might even encourage those in Ukraine who wish to break the fragile ceasefire and resume military action. For example, when Kiev passed a law on September 16 granting self-government to areas of eastern Ukraine, thereby implementing a key provision of the ceasefire agreement, it drew sharp criticism from Poroshenko’s political rivals who attacked it as “caving to Moscow,” and indicated that they would challenge the law in court.
The crucial question that must be asked is what exactly would be the purpose of providing arms to Ukraine? For a start, it would not be to enable Ukraine to recover the territory it has already lost in Crimea or even in eastern Ukraine. To be clear, Ukraine has every right, legally and morally, to seek to recover control over its own territory. Moreover it has a legitimate claim to support from the United States based on the Budapest Memorandums of Security Assurance of 1994. The United States was a signatory to the Memorandums, which guaranteed the territorial integrity of Ukraine in exchange for the country relinquishing its nuclear arsenal. Nevertheless, military action to regain control over the Donbas region controlled by Russian-backed separatists, including the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, is something Russia demonstrated in late August that it will not permit. Charles Krauthammer succinctly described the purpose and effect of Russia’s invasion (or, in the mushy locution of the White House, “incursion”):
A month ago, Putin’s separatist proxies were besieged and desperate. His invasion to the southeast saved them. It diverted the Ukrainian military from Luhansk and Donetsk, allowing the rebels to recover, while Russian armor rolled over Ukrainian forces, jeopardizing their control of the entire southeast. Putin even boasted that he could take Kiev in two weeks.
Krauthammer and others lamented the refusal of the Obama Administration to supply Ukraine with “defensive” weapons, including anti-tank and anti–aircraft weapons. But again, one must ask, to what end? It is abundantly clear that a Ukrainian army, even if lavishly equipped, could not defeat the Russian Army. It is equally clear that neither the United States nor its NATO allies are prepared to engage in combat on behalf of Ukraine.
It is argued that arming Ukraine might discourage Putin from further invasions or incursions in Ukraine by raising the cost of such ventures to Russia. The Economist suggested that, “The Russian public does not support full-scale war with Ukraine. The killing of its own soldiers, who were not even meant to be involved, has been uncomfortable for the Kremlin.” Perhaps. But the Russian public would also be unhappy with the abandonment of the Russian separatists who, they have been told, will suffer dire consequences at the hand of the “brutal fascists in Kiev.” In any case, it may be a mistake to overestimate the impact of public opinion on the animal spirits of Vladimir Putin.
Many highly respected voices have called for arming Ukraine, including those of former Defense Secretary William Perry and former Secretary of State George Shultz, writing in The Wall Street Journal. Nevertheless, on balance, we are inclined to follow the reluctance of the Obama Administration to provide lethal weaponry to Ukraine, at least in the absence of a detailed and clear-eyed assessment of likely risks and benefits. On the other hand, we continue to be dismayed by the Administration’s flaccid response to the threats that Putin’s adventurism suggests for other European countries. We refer to the diminished military capacity of both NATO and the United States.
When NATO met in Wales in the first week of September, its riposte to Putin’s adventurism in Ukraine, and implicit threat to other countries of Eastern Europe, was more cosmetic than substantive. As The Wall Street Journal commented:
In response to the Russian threat, NATO on Friday agreed to a “continuous” rotational presence of an unspecified number of troops in eastern Europe. It also approved a new “spearhead” rapid-reaction force headquartered in Poland, though the 4,000 troops pledged to it will be based elsewhere.
This raises the question of just how rapid the reaction would be if Mr. Putin decides to stir up trouble in, say, Estonia. As it happens, Estonia said on Friday that Russian troops had abducted one of its security officers at gunpoint in southeastern Estonia. Russia claimed he was in Russia.
NATO would have done better to move the thousands of American troops sitting idly at German bases forward to Poland and the Baltic states. This would have sent a clearer message to Moscow of NATO’s seriousness by creating a tripwire against a Russian attack.
It is not clear that even such an ostensible tripwire would be an effective deterrent. To begin with, Russian aggression in Estonia and the other Baltic countries would almost certainly not take the form of a classic invasion, at least in the first instance. The insistence of the White House on referring to an invasion as a mere “incursion,” raises the question of just how much and what kind of Russian activity would be required for the Obama Administration to recognize that our NATO obligations had been triggered under Article 5 of the NATO treaty (which refers to an “armed attack.”) Moreover, Article 5 does not specify the type of responses required of NATO members, and given the apparent antipathy of President Obama and our NATO allies to providing “boots on the ground” for actual combat, Putin might well question how robust the NATO response would be.
Apart from the problem of political will, there is the fundamental issue of military strength. NATO is far from the imposing force that it once was. A March 26 story in The New York Times was aptly headlined “Military Cuts Render NATO Less Formidable as Deterrent to Russia.” As the article explained:
President Obama and European leaders pledged Wednesday to bolster the NATO alliance and vowed that Russia would not be allowed to run roughshod over its neighbors. But the military reality on the ground in Europe tells a different story.
The United States, by far the most powerful NATO member, has drastically cut back its European forces from a decade ago. European countries, which have always lagged far behind the United States in military might, have struggled and largely failed to come up with additional military spending at a time of economic anemia and budget cuts.
The article went on to point out that while we had stationed approximately 400,000 troops in Europe at the height of the Cold War, that figure had shrunk to 67,000 troops, mainly in Germany with the rest scattered, principally in Italy and Britain. Our aircraft in Europe had shrunk from 800 to 172. At the same time, our European allies had not only failed to make up any of the gap but had scaled back their own forces and defense budgets. Only a handful of NATO members meet the target of spending 2% of gross domestic product on defense spending.
The NATO meeting in Wales attempted to address the problem of NATO’s shrunken forces, but the results were not reassuring. As reported in The New York Times on September 5:
NATO also grappled with the unwillingness of most of its members to meet their commitments to spend an amount equivalent to 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense, an issue on which the United States, which bears most of the alliance’s costs, has become increasingly outspoken. The meeting yielded no new binding commitments for individual nations to move quickly to meet the defense spending target. But the alliance did agree to stop cutting defense spending, to spend more in real terms as their economies grew and to reach the 2 percent target within a decade.
Altogether, the maneuverings in Wales gave the impression that NATO in the 21st Century has come to resemble something of a modern Potemkin village. We doubt that a rapacious Putin will be deceived or impressed.
While the United States remains the leader in military spending among the NATO countries, the contemporaneous hollowing out of our own defense budget and military capability is a separate source of serious concern, if not alarm. Yet it is a development that has been given no apparent attention by the White House and relatively little on Capitol Hill. When a pared down Defense budget was presented in February, it drew opposition from Senators Graham and McCain, and raised a number of other eyebrows, but precipitated no general outcry. Less than eight months later, however, the world looks like a very different place.
In Europe there is no telling what Putin has in mind for Ukraine and beyond, but facing him off with a conspicuously weakened military is not a promising strategy. At the same time, the landscape of the Middle East has been decisively altered by the stunning successes of ISIS. President Obama continues to insist that that we will not bear the cost, in blood and treasure, of providing ground combat troops but, to state what should be obvious, that policy is no insurance policy. Moreover, the highly touted air campaign in Iraq and Syria, on which he is placing great reliance, will have its own costs—none of which have been estimated or incorporated in a budget. Finally, in Asia, to which Obama had said we would “pivot,” the United States been confronted with increasing aggressiveness by China. As The New York Times editorialized in June, “Few aspects of China’s dynamic emergence as a global power have generated as much insecurity and danger in its neighborhood as its mounting campaign to control the South China Sea, a vital waterway for international commerce.”
Against that ominous backdrop, we seem to have been nearly paralyzed by a peculiar aviary of budget hawks and foreign policy doves. One outstanding exception, along with Senators Graham and McCain, is Senator Marco Rubio. In a September 17 speech in Washington, Rubio gave a thorough critique of our dangerous military posture, pointed out along the way that “The Army is set to be reduced to pre-World War II levels. The Navy is at pre-WWI levels. And our Air Force has the smallest and oldest combat force in its history.”
Rubio’s critique echoed the July 31 Report of the highly-credentialed and bi-partisan National Defense Panel. The Report concluded that budgetary constraints had created a situation of high risk for national security. It was summarized in The Washington Post in a September 19 op-ed by two members of the Panel, “Cuts to defense spending are hurting our national security.” The writers, Michelle Flournoy and Eric Edelman, were undersecretaries of defense in the Obama and George W, Bush administrations respectively. They noted that the present condition of peril stemmed from the failure to replace the constraints of “sequestration” imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011 with more rational cuts, as had been intended:
Those efforts failed, putting the defense budget on the chopping block and holding our nation’s security hostage at a particularly dangerous moment in world affairs. As a new Congress is elected and we enter another presidential election cycle, our nation’s leaders will need to examine the National Defense Panel report and explain to voters how they intend to address its recommendations. The stakes could not be higher.
Also on September 19, the concerns of the National Defense Panel, and Senators Rubio, Graham and McCain, were underscored by the Army’s highest-ranking officer, General Ray Odierno, Army Chief of Staff. As reported in The Wall Street Journal, General Odierno observed “that he had ‘grave concern about the size of the military,’ particularly in light of a wave of new international problems, including Russian aggression in Europe, the rise of militancy in Iraq and the Ebola threat in Africa. ‘Threats are increasing—they aren’t decreasing—and we have to make sure we are making the right decisions,’ Gen. Odierno said.”
Like Senator Rubio, the Journal observed that the present plan would shrink the Army to its lowest level since before World War II. “The active-duty Army still has 510,000 service members. But the Army is due to shrink to 490,000 by the end of next year. Pentagon leaders are planning to cut the Army further, to 450,000 by the end of 2017 and potentially to 420,000 by the end of the decade.” One would assume that General Odierno is a figure of considerable influence at the Pentagon. But the Journal also reported that “defense officials said that no reconsideration of the reduction currently is under way. Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said the Pentagon is not now planning a review of its decisions on reducing the size of the Army.”
The reactions of President Obama and liberals in Congress to pleas for increased defense spending are likely to range from unsympathetic to hostile. And for many Republicans the Budget Control Act is regarded as an iconic achievement and they are likely to resist a breach of its walls. Nevertheless, one must hope that reality will break through and that urgent needs will be addressed. PBS has just run a series on the Roosevelts, Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor. Whatever one thinks of the policies of Franklin Roosevelt, one cannot help but admire the energy, courage and political skill with which he rallied the nation to meet grave threats domestic and foreign. It should be required viewing by the incumbent President and others who would serve in that office.