Vlad’s Excellent Autocratic Adventure

President Obama with Vladimir Putin. Photo: Pete Souza

A great deal of ink has been spilt over the evolving situation in Ukraine, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s de facto annexation of Crimea. At present, Crimea’s parliament has called for a public referendum to consider formal secession from Ukraine—the vote will be held on March 16.

The Ukrainian government holds that Crimea’s upcoming referendum is unconstitutional, but no one in the Crimean government cares what Ukraine thinks. Regardless, the “popular vote” will likely result in Crimea’s separation from Ukraine for four reasons: 1) Crimea’s population is nearly 60 percent ethnic Russian; 2) Russian troops and supporting local brigands control nearly all Ukrainian military facilities in Crimea; 3) Ukraine has no ability to physically eject Russia from its territory; and 4) Western governments are loath to intervene.

Despite its claims to the contrary, Russia invaded Ukraine under the flimsiest of pretexts to exploit a strategic opportunity presented by Ukraine’s recent political upheaval, a crisis created when its Russian-leaning leader rejected popular desires for Ukraine to ally itself with Europe.

Fresh off his success hosting the Winter Olympics, Putin’s confidence must be soaring; after all, he’s laid permanent claim to a key warm-water port for the Russian Navy; secured unfettered access to the agricultural and energy resources of the Crimean peninsula; and reclaimed territory he believes was wrongly lost following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In one swift, bloodless move he has also exposed Europe’s innate military and political weakness, as well as the continent’s inability to protect its broader interests; Central Europe’s shaky security situation; and Europe’s general dependence on Russian energy. All in all, it’s been a pretty good month for Vladimir.

And what has been the U.S. response to all of this? Indignant rhetoric from Secretary of State John Kerry, and much finger wagging from President Obama, both of whom are shocked that Putin would behave so boorishly.

Herein lays the problem with America’s foreign policy: our leadership behaves as if the rest of the world hangs on enlightened philosophical pronouncements from the White House teleprompter.

In reality the world acts in its own self-interests—Russia, Syria, Iran, North Korea, and China have no problem bullying other nations while the U.S. takes offense that our geopolitical foes aren’t interested in resolving differences over tea and cakes. One shouldn’t be surprised, then, when thugocracies exploit windows of opportunity created by American withdrawal from key regions or lack of will to push back against oppressive regimes.

To date, the U.S. has dispatched a handful of military aircraft to Lithuania and Poland, where it has also undertaken an exercise with NATO allies, and sent a destroyer to the Black Sea to participate in a naval exercise with Bulgaria and Romania. While these actions might have signaled America’s commitment to oppose Russia’s blatant violation of Ukrainian sovereignty, the Obama Administration immediately neutered them by declaring that these measures were scheduled well before the crisis in Ukraine.

The White House has, however, announced several new measures designed to buttress Ukraine: business summits, an innovation council, a special envoy to represent the U.S. in an energy working group, packaged meals to the Ukrainian military, FBI agents to help track down pilfered funds, and doubling the number of Ukrainian students brought to the U.S. under an academic exchange program—all of which are very nice but hardly constitute measures that will prompt Putin to reconsider his reckless disregard for reasoned statesmanship.

While direct military intervention in the Ukrainian crisis would be foolish, there are several things the U.S. could do militarily (in addition to diplomatic and economic measures) to send a strong message to Putin, including:

  • Commit to the deployment of ballistic missile defense (BMD) assets to Poland and the Czech Republic, something President Obama foolishly canceled shortly after taking office;
  • Rapidly organize and execute a major NATO exercise (to include ground, air, and naval maneuvers) with the explicit purpose of showing the Alliance is healthy and won’t tolerate military intimidation of Europe by Russia;
  • Initiate a bilateral exercise with Georgia, an especially symbolic move, given Russia’s attack of that state in 2008; and
  • Conduct high-level defense consultations with Ukraine’s military leadership, again for the express purpose of establishing a principled boundary between the West and Russian belligerency.

Critics will argue such actions are provocative; that’s the point. If Russia doesn’t meet some sort of resistance, Putin will only be emboldened to continue to behave belligerently.

Putin’s gambit demonstrates the consequences of the Obama Administration’s wrongheaded approach to security affairs. Extended retrenchment, unanswered challenges to red lines, weakness in military affairs such as we are seeing the President’s proposed defense budget for 2015 and beyond—all invite geopolitical bullies to grab what they can while they can.

Peace really does come through strength. “Soft talk” absent a “big stick” is just statecraft reduced to whimpering—not really what one expects from a Great Power, and certainly not conducive to maintaining peace and prosperity for the U.S.  Obama’s geopolitical timidity has created strategic opportunities for Russia, China, Iran, and numerous militant factions to reorder regional balances in their favor. To the extent America refuses to shoulder the burden of being “the best hope for mankind,” we will find ourselves, and so many others around the world, poorer, increasingly challenged by our enemies, and with fewer prospects for better tomorrows.

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