19th-Century Diplomacy and a 21st-Century Paramilitary Beats Lots of 21st-Century Diplomacy

by Patrick Brennan

That’s the upshot of a recent piece of analysis by the New York Times, which indicates that Russia’s military capabilities so far in Crimea have seriously surprised and outmaneuvered the U.S.

“Western experts who have followed the success of Russian forces in carrying out President Vladimir V. Putin’s policy in Crimea and eastern Ukraine . . . see a military disparaged for its decline since the fall of the Soviet Union skillfully employing 21st-century tactics that combine cyberwarfare, an energetic information campaign and the use of highly trained special operation troops to seize the initiative from the West,” the Times writes.

Obviously, to some extent, Russia’s capabilities in its near-abroad are unique. And they certainly don’t reflect competence across any large swath of the Russian military: “The operation reveals very little about the current condition of the Russian armed forces,” Roger McDermott, a fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, told the Times. “Its real strength lay in covert action combined with sound intelligence concerning the weakness of the Kiev government and their will to respond militarily.”

Alas, Russia’s near-abroad is pretty extensive: A former NATO analyst said that Poland and the Baltic states are not as vulnerable to the Crimea strategy as people think, but that Central Asian states (the ’​stans), Georgia, Moldova, Armenia, and Azerbaijan all are. What’s obvious is that Russia executed this application of soft and hard power exceedingly well in Crimea — albeit maybe the ideal place for it to have done so — and has a chance at doing so in parts of eastern Ukraine, too.

It soundly beat an Obama administration that’s talked up “smart power” — a combination of soft and hard power that surely has its place. But in a crisis and against a foe with Russia’s power and ambitions, Obama’s preferred blend has been inadequate. So the White House has just dialed up its diplomatic efforts, hard and soft, passing weak sanctions that cannot do anything in the short term and making almost embarrassing fiat claims about how isolated Russia is (when Europe can’t afford to help in that task and we can’t even convince Israel to vote with us at the U.N.).

What seems to be needed is the kind of covert hard power Russia brings to bear but the Obama administration is loath to exercise — and that the U.S. may have neglected over the past decade or so (or longer). 

Obama-ites say their options are limited because Americans are reluctant to use hard power and don’t care that much about Eastern Europe. For one, that almost begs the question, since Congress isn’t primarily entrusted with foreign policy for a reason. More important, though, there are ways to use hard power that carry lower costs. Capabilities like Russia’s in this situation are hard to match and we also have to abide by standards they don’t. But objective assessments suggest we just haven’t tried to develop more nuanced hard-power capabilities as much as Russia has, or we’ve focused on developing them in ways to confront Islamic terrorism and nothing else. If we care about losing confrontations like this one, maybe we need to be more willing to use hard power at times like this – and better at doing so.

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