Part II: Ukraine
In Part I of this blog, which dealt primarily with the Islamic State, we urged readers to take their own look at the National Security Strategy (NSS). In Part II, addressing Ukraine (and the Russian threat to Eastern Europe and the preparedness of NATO), we renew that suggestion although the portions of the document relating to the issues discussed here are relatively brief. Indeed, it is one of the most notable features of the NSS that Ukraine, the broader Russian threat and NATO are given surprisingly little attention.
We pointed out in Part I that the President’s Introduction makes only a passing and somewhat cryptic reference to “Russian aggression.” While the body of the NSS expands a bit on that reference, it does so with sufficient brevity to be quoted in full:
Russia’s aggression in Ukraine makes clear that European security and the international rules and norms against territorial aggression cannot be taken for granted. In response, we have led an international effort to support the Ukrainian people as they choose their own future and develop their democracy and economy. We are reassuring our allies by backing our security commitments and increasing responsiveness through training and exercises, as well as a dynamic presence in Central and Eastern Europe to deter further Russian aggression. This will include working with Europe to improve its energy security in both the short and long term. We will support partners such as Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine so they can better work alongside the United States and NATO, as well as provide for their own defense.
And we will continue to impose significant costs on Russia through sanctions and other means while countering Moscow’s deceptive propaganda with the unvarnished truth. We will deter Russian aggression, remain alert to its strategic capabilities, and help our allies and partners resist Russian coercion over the long term, if necessary. At the same time, we will keep the door open to greater collaboration with Russia in areas of common interests, should it choose a different path—a path of peaceful cooperation that respects the sovereignty and democratic development of neighboring states.
What the NSS, in common with the President’s State of the Union message, fails to acknowledge is that the response to Russian aggression in the form of the so-called “international effort to support the Ukrainian people as they choose their own future and develop their democracy and economy” has had no discernible effect. Crimea is gone and will not be restored to Ukrainian sovereignty in the foreseeable future, if ever. In Eastern Ukraine, Russian support for the rebels with troops and heavy armor has continued without interruption, despite two purported “Cease Fire” agreements. The second Minsk Agreement was immediately breached by the rebels’ seizure of Debaltseve, and while it now seems to have produced a momentary pause in the conflict, there are few who believe that the pause will last or that it will lead to the actual removal of Russian troops and equipment. In the most recent Special Bulletin, we likened Congressional Republicans to ostriches, but on the subjects of Ukraine and ISIS, the President has earned the title “Ostrich in Chief.”
There have been mounting calls for sending defensive but “lethal” military equipment, primarily anti-tank weapons, to Ukraine. A thoughtful, bi-partisan report by several recognized experts, published earlier this month by the Atlantic Council, made such a recommendation. The report, “Preserving Ukraine’s Independence, Resisting Russian Aggression: What the United States and NATO Must Do,” strongly urged providing Ukraine with a range of military equipment. Even the new Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, testified at his confirmation hearing on February 4 that he would be “very much inclined” to provide weapons to Ukraine. While there were media reports at the time that the administration was reconsidering its policy of withholding military support, no change of policy has emerged.
While we are sympathetic to the arguments for arming Ukraine, we remain wary of doing so without a clear-eyed assessment of what the likely consequences would be. The Atlantic Council report, and other advocates of arming Ukraine, concede that providing military equipment would not enable Ukraine to defeat Russian forces, but argue that it would make further aggression more “costly.” Still, there appear no be no reliable estimates of just how costly or what costs Putin is likely to accept. More important there is no clear plan of what to do if Russia does accept the costs and thereby ups the ante. We believe that there was wisdom in the cautionary testimony of Henry Kissinger before the Armed Services Committee as reported in Bloomberg’s National Post:
I’m uneasy about beginning a process of military engagement without knowing where it will lead us and what we’ll do to sustain it….I believe we should avoid taking incremental steps before we know how far we are willing to go. This is a territory 300 miles from Moscow, and therefore has special security implications.”
If Ukraine is not to be armed, what can be done? The most immediate answer is the provision of economic assistance on a large and highly expedited basis. If the military situation in Ukraine has drawn most of the discussion and debate, that country’s economic situation may be even more dire. One observer, Mark Adomanis, writing in Forbes on February 26, suggests that economic pressure has become another means for Russia to attack Kiev:
Russia has rapidly and deftly switched its primary pressure from military to economic. Gazprom, the Russian natural gas monopoly that still provides the lion’s share of Ukraine’s energy, is threatening to cut off gas supplies unless it receives prepayment for future deliveries. Given Ukraine’s incredibly precarious state finances and its extreme shortage of foreign currency (Ukraine pays Russia for natural gas in US dollars) this new effort is tantamount to driving Kiev into bankruptcy.
Adomanis pointed out that little of the promised economic assistance from the West has been forthcoming. An aid package from the International Monetary Fund is still awaiting approval and other financial support has been slow or non-existent: “Despite optimistic press releases and serious sounding sermons about ‘solidarity,’ the amount of non-rhetorical assistance received by the authorities in Kiev has been paltry.” Similarly Bloomberg Business, pointing to the collapse in the market for Ukrainian bonds, observed on February 25, “Russia is damaging Ukraine’s economy faster than the U.S. and its European allies can provide support.” In the language that the Administration likes to employ for ISIS, Russia may well succeed in “degrading and ultimately destroying” the government in Kiev. In this case, however, “ultimately” may not be that far off.
The second action that can be taken in the near term is the imposition of broader and tougher economic sanctions. Secretary Kerry has said that additional sanctions are “teed up” and ready to be imposed in the event of further Russian aggression. We have been skeptical of the effectiveness of sanctions in deterring Putin, and thus far our skepticism appears to have been well-grounded. Nevertheless, if military support is determined to be impractical or unwise, sanctions may be the only recourse.
Finally, consideration should be given to a presentation to the Security Council of the evidence, photographic and otherwise, of the Russian presence in Ukraine. A veto by Russia would, of course, prevent the Council from taking any action, but it might well be useful to impress upon the world the facts of what has been done, and is still taking place.
At the same time, Congress as well as the Administration must pay serious attention to the military implications for both NATO and the United States of a Russian presence looming over the Baltics and other countries of Eastern Europe. With respect to NATO, the NSS makes the truly remarkable claim that “NATO is stronger and more cohesive than at any point in its history.” Quite to the contrary, as we discussed in some detail in Blog No. 43, PART III, Ukraine-and What Lies Beyond, (September 21, 2014), the capability of both NATO and the U.S. Army have been reduced to dangerous levels. Unfortunately, the situation has not improved over the intervening five months, and rather than recycling that analysis, we invite readers to take a look at the earlier blog via the above link.
So far as the Army is concerned, the NSS does call for an end to the restraint on military spending imposed by sequestration. This need has also been recently acknowledged by senior government officials, including Christine Wormuth, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. Testimony by Secretary Wormuth on February 25 came on the heels of concerns of the commander of the U.S. Army Europe, General Frederick B. Hodges, as reported in The Wall Street Journal on February 6:
To a commander like Gen. Hodges, the strain on the Army caused by budget sequestration is palpable. “With the possibility of sequestration hanging over our head, the Army will have to go to 420,000” personnel, he says. “That’s about another 80,000 below where we are now. . . . The strength of the Army at the height of the buildup was about 560,000.”
What Gen. Hodges fears is a “hollow” Army, in which commanders will have to forego a capable and sufficiently large personnel, readiness or modernization to meet budget requirements.
Unfortunately, however, the approach of the Obama Administration as reflected in the budget submitted to Congress, may tie an increase in military spending to both an increase in domestic spending and an increase in taxes. While we are not as inflexible on the latter issues as others may be, we believe that military spending should be judged independently and given priority. Unless and until an adequate military budget is put in place, neither our European allies nor Vladimir Putin are likely to take seriously our resolve.