As Eastern Europe continues to destabilize, with Russian troops massing on the border of Ukraine, the Obama administration appears completely flummoxed by Vladimir Putin’s aggression. The use of sanctions, as many predicted, has proven completely ineffective in checking Russian power, and it seems inevitable that Ukraine will once again become a Russian state.
While it’s understandable that Americans are reluctant to commit our military to yet another foreign entanglement, we must nevertheless consider other options. Skeptics of intervention look to disastrous experiences in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan and take these as warnings to keep our distance, but it might be our historic involvement in Korea that presents the best case study for what could go right — and also for what could go horribly wrong if the United States fails to get involved in Ukraine.
We took it upon ourselves to engage in action in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan — no treaty or agreement forced our hand. But in the Ukraine–Russia conflict, we may very well have a legal obligation to take action. In order to induce Ukraine to give up its nuclear weapons following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, we pledged in the Budapest Memorandum to assist them should they face the kind of threat they are facing right now. There is genuine debate about the exact meaning of the memorandum as it relates to the current scenario, but at the very least, America’s inaction calls into question our credibility and our commitment to preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
As a defensive weapon, nuclear arms, through the doctrine of “mutually assured destruction,” kept the Cold War from slipping into a hot war. Neither the U.S. nor the Soviet Union would launch a first strike, because doing so would essentially be an act of suicide. Sharing the risk of annihilation, the two superpowers co-existed in an uneasy peace for nearly a half-century.
In terms of regional conflicts, nuclear weapons can serve as a deterrent to invasion, and give smaller, burgeoning nation-states bargaining power against larger, well-armed nations. Nuclear capability in the tiny nation-state of Israel, for instance, can shield it from any one of a number of neighbors who work day and night to bring about the total destruction of the Jewish state.
In the 1990s, Ukraine recognized the potential threat from its larger, better-armed former master, Russia. In exchange for giving up its nuclear weapons, it sought assurance that its state would not disappear through the kind of aggressive Russian actions we are witnessing today. We gave Ukrainians that assurance, and while some do not agree that the Budapest Memorandum obligates us to protect Ukraine’s borders, if we ignore our pledge, how can we ever convince any other nation to give up its nuclear weapons? Or trust us when we offer protection?
Sanctions are clearly not working — at least not the ones the Obama administration has put in place. Putin interprets sanctions as a sign of the West’s weakness and inability to act. For a man like Vladimir Putin, inaction offers the opportunity to consolidate his power.