What should the United States do — in a way that avoids war — in response to the Russian invasion of Crimea? It is a legitimate and vital question. But it is like asking what do you do now that you have been dealt the worst hand of cards possible whereas, in earlier rounds, the hands you were dealt were much more favorable. Whenever I hear this question, I ask myself: Why should our nation’s leaders only now be thinking seriously about Ukraine, when they should have been thinking about it seriously for a very long time?
RUSSIA AND ITS “NEAR ABROAD”
We have long known about the Russians’ strategic intentions in Ukraine and in the other countries they call the “near abroad.” Their national-security doctrine argues that Moscow has the “right” to intervene militarily to protect “Russian-speaking people” wherever they live in neighboring countries. This doctrine, which is completely contrary to international law, was officially ensconced in Russian policy all the way back in the first two years of post-Soviet Russia.
For two decades, we have witnessed Russian meddling in the internal affairs of the former captive nations that are now independent, sovereign states. This includes: pervasive intelligence penetration; the buying up of local companies by corporations controlled by the FSB (Federal Security Service) or the Russian mafia; the use of energy blackmail; the financial and other support of political factions and individual leaders within these various nations; and the continuation of Russia’s divide-and-conquer policy. This policy entails pitting one ethnic or religious group against another — and even inciting pogroms by one ethnic group against another. 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 Eastern/Central Europe, mainly through pervasive intelligence and commercial penetration. In addition, there have been increasing questions over the past two years about whether the Polish presidential aircraft that crashed in Smolensk, Russia, in 2010 had been sabotaged.
A WEAK AMERICAN RESPONSE
In the face of all this, the United States has been silent.
In fact, President Obama rewarded Vladimir Putin with his “reset” policy, which was designed to reduce tensions with Moscow and explore avenues of mutually beneficial cooperation. There are few such avenues, however. The main one concerned securing Russian permission to use the “Northern Route” to ship arms and material to the Afghan war theater in order to avoid being at the mercy of the Pakistanis.
In 2011, we signed the so-called New START treaty, an arms-control agreement that serves no serious U.S. strategic interest. There was no arms race between the U.S. and Russia, except insofar as Moscow was modernizing its nuclear forces, and it continues to do so in spite of New START. The treaty was signed even though the U.S. government knew that Moscow was violating the INF (Intermediate Nuclear Forces) Treaty of 1987 — just as Moscow, in both its Soviet and post-Soviet guises, has violated every single arms treaty it has ever signed.
In 2009, we abandoned the deployment of missiles and radars for an ABM system in Poland and the Czech Republic, and we did so in such an undiplomatic fashion, without consulting and reassuring these NATO allies, that it was a transparent slap in the face. What could have motivated such shabby treatment of our allies, if not a desire to show Moscow that we were willing to bend over backwards to accommodate its interests?
It can be argued that the administration’s policy of letting Europe take the lead in encouraging Ukraine to integrate with it economically was wise inasmuch as it avoided sticking an American thumb directly into the Russian eye. But the larger issue is: Shouldn’t we have been more sober about Russia’s strategic purposes, particularly in Ukraine, which is geostrategically the greatest prize for a policy of Russian revanchism? Shouldn’t we have been more serious in our reaction to Russian aggression in Georgia? Shouldn’t we have realized that the Russian salami tactics were likely to have grievously destabilizing effects in the region?
It is all very nice to want to find harmonies of interest with Russia, of which, in my estimation, there are two: (1) combatting Islamist terrorism and (2) containing Chinese expansionism.
In the larger scheme of things, China is objectively Russia’s greatest geostrategic threat. Over time, increasing numbers of Chinese have sought employment in Siberia. As some commentators have observed, the day may come when China might wish to intervene to defend its countrymen living in adjacent Siberian territories.
But such is Putin’s and his confederates’ resentment of Russia’s defeat in the Cold War that they would rather spend their emotional energies obstructing U.S. and NATO interests and working to reconstitute the Soviet political space than dealing seriously with authentic security threats.
LACK OF CREDIBILITY
Now that we have been dealt a very bad hand of cards, how much has our own leadership exacerbated this situation?
The Obama administration’s “red lines” and threats are seen by our enemies as bluffs. It is easy to lose diplomatic credibility; it is very hard to regain it. But credibility is what enables a major power to secure its vital interests and those of its friends and allies without having to kill people to do so.