ASCF Report | 3.3.14
By Alan W. Dowd
Vladimir Putin his due: the Russian strongman has an almost-animal instinct for
sensing weakness and a preternatural sense of timing. He is putting both on
display as he consolidates Russia’s historic hold on Ukraine’s Crimean
peninsula, sets in motion Ukraine’s partition and presents the West with a choice
between trying to reverse a fait accompli or acquiescing to a naked act of
is to blame for this mess. He is the neighborhood thug. However, President
Barack Obama’s signals have done nothing to dissuade or deter. What Churchill said of his Russian counterparts remains
true of Putin and his puppets, “There is nothing they admire so much as
strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for
Washington has signaled weakness repeatedly in recent years.
there was Obama’s “Russian reset.” The implication of the “reset” was twofold:
the Bush administration’s approach to Moscow was somehow to blame for frosty
U.S.-Russia relations, and Putin was eager to be Washington’s partner. Importantly,
the “reset” ignored the fact that Russia had invaded NATO-aspirant Georgia in
the closing months of the Bush administration.
A second signal was Obama’s unilateral decision to reverse NATO’s planto deploy permanent missile-defense interceptors in Poland and missile-defense
radars in the Czech Republic. Obama’s reversal
pleased the Russians, but it humiliated the Poles and Czechs. A Polish defense
official called the decision “catastrophic.” The Czech Republic rejected
Washington’s plans for a watered-down, mobile system as “a consolation prize.”
third signal was Obama’s mishandling of the crisis in Syria. By drawing a “red
line” at chemical weapons, Obama staked his—and America’s—credibility on
punishing Assad for any use of WMDs. But he didn’t follow through on his
threat. To make matters worse, he sought a way out of his conundrum by
accepting Putin’s promise to cajole Assad into handing over his chemical
weapons. We now know Assad is not making
good on his promises to disarm—and Putin is doing nothing about it.
fourth signal was the nearly-trillion dollars in cuts Obama forced on the
Pentagon. It’s axiomatic that deterrent strength depends on, well, strength.
Putin knows that if the U.S. military has fewer resources, then America has
slower reflexes, a shorter reach and a smaller global role. Doubtless, Putin
saw the withdrawal last year of every remaining
U.S. tank from Europe (a decision that was reversed last month) as proof of
America’s waning will.
fifth signal is Washington’s language. Obama famously promised “flexibility” to
Putin’s predecessor/successor Dmitry Medvedev. Obama has seldom, if ever, used
the bully pulpit to criticize Putin’s policies. And just last week, he declared that “any violation of Ukraine’s
sovereignty and territorial integrity would be deeply destabilizing, which is
not in the interest of Ukraine, Russia or Europe.” There was no mention of
U.S. interests in Ukraine. Putin got the message.
this with President Ronald Reagan’s response to the Soviet attack on Korean Air
Lines flight 007. Reagan made it clear that Moscow’s act of aggression was “against
ourselves…the Republic of Korea…the whole world and the moral precepts which
guide human relations.” He said there was “absolutely
no justification, either legal or moral” for the attack. He cut through
the doubletalk spewed by Moscow’s diplomats, bluntly declaring, “They have spun a confused tale.” He used the attack
as a chance to remind America and Europe about the true nature of the regime in
Moscow, declassifying and sharing intercepted audio recordings of Soviet
communications before, during and after the shoot-down. And he concluded there
could be no business as usual: plans for a summit were shelved, restrictions
were placed on Soviet civilian air traffic, bilateral agreements were
Reagan didn’t mobilize the 82nd Airborne in September 1983. And nor should
Obama today. But Reagan knew there were many elements of American power that
can be mobilized in response to aggression. That remains true today. Before we explore those options, it’s important to note
that they will be complicated by several factors:
- First, Russia has a historic
connection with the Crimea. Russia has maintained a naval base there
dating to the 1700s. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet has a lease through 2042.
The Russian military had several air and naval bases, surface and
submarine assets, and a few thousand troops in the Crimea before the
crisis (and many thousand more now). About 17 percent of
Ukraine—and almost 60 percent of the Crimea—is ethnic Russian.
- Second, Russia owns the real
estate now—and has demonstrated its capacity and willingness to hold it.
The only thing worse than Russia seizing part of Ukraine and menacing its
democratically elected government is Russia taking half of Ukraine and
overthrowing its democratically elected government. It will be interesting
to see if the people of Ukraine consider Ukraine a sovereign country with
Russian and Ukrainian elements, or an artificial construct of Russian and
Ukrainian statelets. We know what Putin thinks.
- Third, Russia supplies oil
and gas to Ukraine.
Russia is a nuclear power with global interests and the capability to defend
those interests—and challenge America’s. Indeed, Russia has invaded and
dismembered a sovereign Georgia, waged cyber-war against Estonia, used energy
supplies as a weapon against Central Europe, provided diplomatic and military
cover for Assad, unilaterally claimed a vast swath of the Arctic, violated the
INF Treaty, harbored fugitive spy Edward Snowden and conducted a series of
increasingly provocative war games on NATO’s borders. Flush with petro-dollars,
Putin is increasing military spending—a 65-percent increase in the past three
years—and plans to deploy 2,300 new tanks, 600 new warplanes, 400 new ICBMs and
50 new warships in the next decade.
short, Russia is ruled by an autocrat who understands only the language of
power. That reality leads us to some concrete actions that Washington can take
to re-reset U.S.-Russia relations.Putin must
know the consequences will be real and lasting.
Use the Bully Pulpit
Obama should remind the world what the people Kiev did to invite Putin’s
wrath: they took a step toward the West, protested when their president tried
to yank them back toward Moscow and then ousted him when he gunned them down by
the dozens. None of this threatened Ukraine’s neighbors or ethnic minorities.
Obama should use his formidable rhetorical skills to raise the issue of Putin’s
dubious political legitimacy—publicly and repeatedly. Czar
Vladimir has engineered his way from prime minister to president to prime
minister to president in the past 14 years. As
Robert Kagan observes, “Elections do not offer a choice but only a chance to
ratify choices made by Putin.”
Obama should expose to the light Putin’s assault on human rights by offering a
platform to those mistreated by Putin and his puppets—free-speech activists and
bands and independent media, human rights activists and evangelical Christians,
political dissidents and those persecuted for their sexual orientation.
As Reagan counseled, “a little less détente…and more encouragement to the
dissenters might be worth a lot of armored divisions.”
Swing the Diplomatic Stick
It’s time for Russia to be removed from the G-8. Before 1998, it was
a club of liberal industrialized democracies. If Russia ever met the membership
criteria, it certainly doesn’t today.
In addition, the EU and U.S. should fashion a long-term aid and
trade package for Ukraine, making it clear that Americans and Europeans see
Ukraine as part of the West—as a partner to be nurtured, not a problem to be
managed. The package should include EU monitors to make sure Ukraine doesn’t
slide toward civil war—and make sure Russia doesn’t foment another crisis.
Stop Whittling away
at the Big Stick
It’s time to reacquaint Russia with the U.S. military’s deterrent strength—and
technological superiority—by reversing efforts to slash defense spending. That
would translate into stopping the slide toward sequestration’s guillotine,
recapitalizing the Navy, reopening the F-22 production line, speeding up development
of the Long Range Strike Bomber, and scrapping plans to cut Army and Marine
Shape up SHAPE
Related, NATO has been begging its members to invest 2 percent of GDP on
defense. Only three members meet that standard today. The United States should
lead an alliance-wide effort to help each member develop an action plan to lift
their defense budgets to the 2-percent threshold.
While they’re at it, the allies
need to remind themselves that they’re part of a military alliance. Yes, it has
a political role, but that’s secondary to the mission of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE). Article
V of the North Atlantic Treaty—NATO’s all-for-one collective defense clause—is
the backbone of the alliance. Yet Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide
worries about NATO’s ability “to deliver if something happens in the
transatlantic theater of a more classical type of aggression.” If NATO’s
members do not take Article V seriously, neither will NATO’s enemies.
remedy this perception, NATO recently recommitted itself to “a robust exercise and training program” featuring
“high-intensity, large-scale exercises.” The first of these—held in late 2013—was
NATO’s largest live-fire military drill in
nearly eight years. The exercise was conducted
in Poland, Latvia and the Baltic Sea, which certainly sent a message to Moscow.
Perhaps NATO’s next exercise should be held in Hungary, Bulgaria and the Black
Sea—all of which border Ukraine.
Finally, NATO needs to end the charade that is the NATO-Russia
Council. Ukraine is not a NATO member. But given that Russia knows Ukraine has
a special relationship with NATO and the U.S.—cooperative training programs,
collaborative deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, the NATO-Ukraine Commission—it’s
obvious what former KGB commissar Putin thinks about NATO’s extended hand.
Start Playing Chess
approach,” Obama said a weeks before the Crimea crisis, “is not to see these as
some Cold War chessboard in which we’re in competition with Russia.”
problem is that Putin is playing chess. And he’s winning.
Playing chess is about seeing the whole board, thinking ahead, moving pieces on
one side of the board to impact the other. Obama has many moves to make on the
Obama could revive plans for permanent missile-defense sites in Eastern Europe.
Since taking them off the table was not in America’s interests and did not
placate Putin, putting them back on the table makes good sense. There’s
precedent for this: After North Korea’s spasms in 2013, Obama reversed course and ordered the Pentagon to
complete Bush-era plans for permanent ground-based interceptors in Alaska.
could move the outlines of a NATO Arctic partnership from the drawing board to
the real world. The groundwork has already been laid: Norway, the U.S., Canada
and Denmark—all NATO allies—have conducted Arctic military maneuvers in recent
has always bristled at America’s post-9/11 presence in Central Asia. The U.S.
is winding down operations at an airbase in
Kyrgyzstan, to Moscow’s delight. Thus, Washington should move quickly to ink basing agreementswith the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan, and it should
solidify under-the-radar ties with the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan.
should declare the Putin-brokered chemical weapons deal dead, citing Assad’s
failure to meet key deadlines, and give the Saudis and Turks a green light to
carve out buffer zones inside Syria’s borders for helping refugees and arming
Washington should open up the North American oil spigot, allow an energy
superpower to be
born and watch Putin’s petro-dollar economy collapse.
The obvious problem with these proposals is that Obama is
no Reagan. Reagan was one of those rare American leaders comfortable with
burnishing American ideals and playing hard ball to defend American interests.
Obama seems uncomfortable with the former and incapable of the latter. But
just as Afghanistan changed President Carter, perhaps Ukraine will change President
Obama.*Dowd is a senior fellow with the American Security Council Foundation, where he writes The Dowd Report, a monthly review of international events and their impact on U.S. national security.