Politics & Policy

Acting on Ukraine

In dealing with Putin’s Russia, the U.S. needs a new “reset” — of its own policies and tactics.

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?


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.


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.


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.

The ayatollahs had contempt for Jimmy Carter and held our hostages for 444 days. They had respect for Ronald Reagan, who, before he ever became president, demonstrated the moral/political strength necessary to earn that respect. The ayatollahs did not want to mess with Ronald Reagan, and they released the hostages on his inauguration day.

Putin sees Barack Obama the way the ayatollahs saw Jimmy Carter. And this makes the world a much more dangerous place, because if President Obama wants to build serious credibility, he may be tempted to take actions that are more risky than a Ronald Reagan would need to take.

So what is to be done?

Ultimately, our policy must be shaped by what is in our vital national interest. That interest entails:

(1) Ensuring that all the countries of Europe remain at peace and well behaved toward one another. If Europe is at peace, economic development and international trade are maximized, not only to the Europeans’ benefit, but to ours as well.

The reason for the expansion of NATO was precisely this, and it has been a wildly successful investment on our part. Why? Because there are so many potential conflicts on the continent, particularly in its central and eastern regions, which stem from the presence of one national group living as a minority within the territory of a neighboring country. Suppression of any irredentist policies has been vitally necessary to keep the peace. The various nations that could be tempted to pursue such policies needed to be given a serious incentive to abjure them, and the security benefits of NATO membership have been the most serious such incentive. The one major place where circumstances prevented us from establishing such a NATO incentive structure in time was the Balkans, and the price was paid in costly wars between the Yugoslav Federation and the breakaway provinces (now independent countries) of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo.

(2) Ensuring that Russia channel its energies into constructive policies promoting internal economic development and security from genuine threats, and not into destabilizing policies designed to restore the former Soviet political space. Such revanchist policies can only provoke continual local resistance to Moscow’s rule of the kind that it has encountered in Chechnya, which has attracted jihadists from throughout the world, to the ultimate detriment not only of Russia but of the West. The possibility that jihadists will descend upon Crimea to defend the Muslim Tartars there cannot be excluded.


Russia has long had a strategic culture that carefully measures the “correlation of forces” — the relative strengths and weaknesses of the parties to any conflict. It is highly sensitive to signals not only of material strength but also of moral/political/ideological strength. To secure our vital interests, our most important priority is to start sending signals of strength to the world, in contrast to the cascade of signals of weakness that this administration has sent.

First of all, this requires reversing the debilitating cuts in our defense spending. It means shoring up our allies, particularly those close to the Russian border and especially the Baltic states, Poland, and Romania. This means supplying them with more advanced weapons, especially missile defenses. The deterrent effect of such a policy would be enhanced by deploying U.S. and NATO troops there on a permanent basis and ensuring that they are well armed.

There are all sorts of economic sanctions that deserve the most serious consideration. As many have commented, among the most important are moves that would deprive Russia of its ability to conduct energy blackmail against Ukraine and many of our NATO allies. An active policy — in contrast to the administration’s passivity, if not obstruction — of seeking U.S. energy independence is long overdue.

One thing that no one is talking about, but that needs to be implemented urgently, is a broad-scale informational campaign to counter Moscow’s extraordinary propaganda and  perception-management efforts. Such a campaign would put Putin on the political defensive by exposing the ongoing record of Russian violations of the sovereignty of its neighbors, Russian violations of its solemn international obligations, and Russian criminality that extends from Moscow’s suppression of independent media to the assassination of its political enemies in foreign capitals. Putin charges that the new government in Ukraine is illegitimate. The irony is that Putin’s election was so laden with corruption and manipulation that his own legitimacy is subject to even more question.

An issue could be made of Russia’s possession of the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad, which was never Russian territory and which never should have remained part of Russia after the collapse of the USSR. Russian rule over non-Russian lands such as those in the Caucasus can be raised before the U.N. Special Committee on Decolonization.

Another issue is the fact that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine constitutes a violation of the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. In this agreement, signed in 1994, Russia pledged to respect the sovereignty of Ukraine within its current borders. In return, Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons.

Moscow has been conducting the Crimean intervention on the basis of specious claims about allegedly endangered countrymen there, and now it is making the same claims concerning Russians living in eastern Ukraine. Where is the truth to counter these falsehoods? Where is this administration’s strategic communication effort?

The protection of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine is a matter with serious geostrategic implications. If Russia is able to get away with the annexation of part or all of Ukraine, what will stop it from annexing Moldova? What will stop it from reabsorbing Armenia? Or, for that matter, taking over the rest of Georgia?

A serious case can be made that the West should supply sophisticated arms and intelligence to the new Ukrainian government. Justice would even dictate giving Ukraine replacements for the nuclear weapons it surrendered — although prudence would dictate refraining from such a policy. However, deterrence could be considerably strengthened by threatening to station U.S. forces equipped with tactical nuclear weapons in the aforementioned Eastern European states. Ideally these should be neutron artillery shells that can stop an armored invading force on the battlefield while sparing surrounding populations from radioactive fallout.

A wise policy of diplomatic action that can give the Russians a face-saving exit from Crimea should be the first order of business. But such diplomacy will be surely a failure unless Putin and his gang encounter serious disincentives against the continuation of their current aggression.

— John Lenczowski is founder, president, and a professor at The Institute of World Politics. He formerly served as President Reagan’s principal adviser on Soviet affairs in the National Security Council.


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