The American Legion Magazine | 6.1.14
By Alan W. Dowd
The most intriguing aspect of
Vladimir Putin’s Brezhnev-style response to the Kiev Spring is what’s not in
-Before February 28, the Crimean Peninsula was part
of Ukraine. Every map said so. Even the Russian government said so.[i]
-Unprovoked, Putin used military force to invade
a sovereign nation, seize part of it and systematically disconnect it from the
whole. The fact that it was carried out by Russian soldiers scrubbed of Russian
insignia[ii] doesn’t make it any less of an invasion. -NATO is neither willing nor obligated to reverse
Putin’s aggression. Whether it should is a subject for another essay. Suffice
it to say that being a NATO member has advantages, and Ukraine is not a member.
From these givens, the United States and its allies can
craft a response that deals with strategic realities rather than idealistic
hopes—and prevents Putin from using Crimea’s secession referendum as a template
for the piecemeal restoration of the Russian Empire.
Putin ascended to power vowing to end a decade of decline in
Russia, and that he did. He crushed a rebellion in Chechnya, reasserted Russian
influence in the former Soviet Union’s footprint, used Russia’s energy
resources to regain a prominent place on the global stage, and decreased
cooperation with the West.
This was a dramatic departure from the approach of Putin’s
predecessor. Boris Yeltsin had democratic instincts, wanted Russia to become
part of the West and invited the West into Russia. Yeltsin was often
idealistic, jovial, even silly sometimes—a trait accentuated by his fondness
Putin is none of those things. The former KGB commissar is
serious, sober, cunning and calculating. He thinks in terms of interests—his
and Russia’s. His instincts are authoritarian. He has pulled Russia away from the
West, away from globalization and back towards autarky.
Yeltsin blamed communism for
spreading “enmity and unparalleled brutality everywhere…We shall not let it
rise again in our land!”
Putin declared, “The demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest
geopolitical catastrophe of the century…Tens of millions of our fellow citizens
and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory.”
That speaks volumes about Putin’s motives in Ukraine,
Georgia and other unfortunates along Russia’s borderlands.
Of course, Putin’s actions should have gotten the West’s
attention long before Crimea.
-In addition to dismembering Ukraine and Georgia,
Putin’s Russia has used energy supplies as a weapon against Central Europe,
provided cover for Syria’s Assad, claimed a vast swath of the Arctic, violated
the INF Treaty, harbored fugitive spy Edward Snowden, withdrawn from the
Nunn-Lugar threat reduction program and conducted a crescendo of provocative
war games on NATO’s borders. Some have involved feigned invasions of
NATO-member Poland, complete with mock nuclear strikes.
-Russia’s troop presence in the Baltic
region—Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania are NATO members—has mushroomed from
16,000 to nearly 100,000.[iv]
-Putin’s military is a shell of the Red Army. But
Russia retains a massive nuclear arsenal and enough punch to overwhelm its
neighbors and reincorporate Russian regions of Ukraine, Moldova and the Baltics.
Flush with petro-dollars, Putin has increased military spending 31 percent since 2008, with plans to deploy
2,300 new tanks, 600 new warplanes, and 58 new warships and submarines in the
-Putin has lunged
into the resource-rich Arctic, building new outposts and ports, refurbishing Soviet-era
airfields, and fielding two
Arctic army brigades. “We are open to dialogue with…our neighbors in the
Arctic region,” Putin explains. “But naturally, the defense of our geopolitical
interests will be hard and consistent.”[vi]
As the Brookings Institution’s Robert Kagan concludes, “It
is the entire post-Cold War settlement of the 1990s that Russia resents and
wants to revise.”[vii]
Kagan is not alone in this prognosis. In 2009, Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel called Putin’s Russia “a
revisionist power.” Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates concludes
Putin wants “to recreate…a Russian bloc.”[viii]
In short, a tougher
approach is in order. 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
weakness, especially military
Regrettably, weakness is what Putin has perceived in the
West. Make no mistake: Putin is to blame for this crisis. But the West has done
little to deter or punish his thuggish behavior. In fact, it has often done the
early 2008, Germany and France blocked efforts to invite Georgia and Ukraine
into NATO, hoping to mollify Putin.[x]Moscow returned the favor by invading Georgia. Neither the outgoing Bush
administration nor the incoming Obama administration made Moscow pay a price. Those
who counter that NATO dodged a bullet by not inviting these countries in from
no-man’s land miss an important point: Putin’s intervention in Ukraine and Georgia—and
non-intervention in Poland, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania—suggests that he
takes NATO seriously. How long that will last is uncertain.
Another policy Putin saw as a sign of weakness was the Obama
administration’s scrapping of Bush-era plans to deploy permanent
missile-defense assets in Poland and the Czech Republic—plans unanimously
endorsed by NATO.[xi]In addition, NATO’s wholesale defense cuts, especially the nearly-trillion
dollars in cuts the Pentagon is facing,[xii]have sent the wrong message. “NATO has become more benign,” notes Kagan, “just
as Russia has become more aggressive.”[xiii]
Finally, the implication of the Obama
administration’s well-intentioned “reset” was that Putin wanted a partner, if
only Washington would change its tone. That hypothesis has been obliterated.
Russia invaded Georgia during the “with us or against us” Bush administration,
and Ukraine during the “lead from behind” Obama administration. Putin—not Washington’s
tone—is the problem.
Putin must know the consequences of
annexing Crimea, fomenting disorder to justify some sort of Russia-Ukraine
union and redrawing Europe’s borders by force will be real and lasting.This is complicated by Russia’s historic
roots in Ukraine, domination of Ukraine’s natural-gas supply, military
advantage over Kiev and calculating approach. (Everything that has followed
Ukraine’s ouster of its pro-Russian president—the Russian army’s stealth
invasion and “snap” border maneuvers, the Duma’s rubber-stamp authorization,
Crimea’s readymade secession referendum, the manufactured protests in Ukrainian
border towns—suggests Putin had planned this.)
However, those who frame the situation as a choice between reversing
Putin’s fait accompli by force and appeasing naked aggression by inaction overlook
a menu of options.
Just as President Carter altered his approach to Moscow
after the invasion of Afghanistan, the invasion of Ukraine means it’s time to
re-set the reset.
The first step is
to reacquaint Russia with the U.S. military’s deterrent strength by stopping
the slide toward sequestration’s bipartisan guillotine. This would translate
into recapitalizing the fleet, reopening the F-22 production line,[xiv] fast-tracking
development of the Long Range Strike Bomber, reversing cuts to Army and Marine
Corps end-strength, deploying Arctic-capable assets, and beefing up NATO’s
presence in the Baltics and Poland.
political support may be just under the surface: President Reagan noted
that Moscow’s shoot-down of KAL 007 “gave badly needed impetus in Congress to
the rearmament program.”[xv]
Shape up SHAPE
We can thank Putin
for reminding NATO’s ambivalent members that their core mission is deterrence.
Washington should use this opportunity to help each NATO ally lift defense
spending to NATO’s 2-percent-of-GDP standard. If we remove U.S. defense
spending from the picture, alliance members spend an average of 1.3 percent of
GDP on defense.
As the allies rebuild, they
must revitalize Article
V of the North Atlantic Treaty—NATO’s all-for-one collective defense clause. Only once in its history has NATO invoked Article
V—on September 12, 2001—yet some NATO members don’t take Article V seriously.
If they did, European defense spending wouldn’t have shrunk by 15
percent in the decade after 9/11; Washington wouldn’t have been reduced
to begging for troops in Afghanistan; and the troops that were sent wouldn’t
have limits placed on where and how they fight. If NATO’s members don’t take
Article V seriously, neither will NATO’s enemies.
To remedy this perception, NATO recently returned to “high-intensity,
first of these was held in
Poland, Latvia and the Baltic Sea in late 2013.[xvii]Perhaps the next should be held in Hungary, Romania
and the Black Sea—all bordering Ukraine.
NATO should shutter the NATO-Russia Council. It’s obvious what Putin thinks
about NATO’s extended hand.
Putin is not Hitler. But as longtime Pentagon official Dov Zakheim observes,
“The West is full of Chamberlains.”[xviii]To extend the historical parallel, the world thirsts for a Churchill, someone to
rally the demoralized democracies.
President Obama could fill
that role by employing his formidable rhetorical skills against Putinism. He
could start by reminding the world what the people of Kiev did to invite
Putin’s wrath: They took a step toward Europe, protested when their president
tried to yank them back into Moscow’s orbit and ousted him when he gunned them
Obama should highlight Putin’s aversion to free government. Czar Vladimir has
engineered his way from prime minister to president to prime minister to
president in the past 14 years. As Kagan observes, “Elections do not offer a
choice but only a chance to ratify choices made by Putin.” And Obama should
expose Putin’s assault on human rights by offering a platform to Putin’s
enemies—journalists, evangelical Christians, those persecuted for sexual
orientation, political dissidents. “A little less détente,” as Reagan
counseled, “and more encouragement to the dissenters might be worth a lot of
“Our approach,” Obama said before the Crimean Crisis, “is not to see these
as some Cold War chessboard in which we’re in competition with Russia.”[xix]
But Putin is playing chess,
and he’s winning. The good news is Washington has many moves to make.
should be jettisoned from the G-8. Before 1998, it was a club of liberal industrialized
democracies. If Russia ever met the membership criteria, it doesn’t today.
Washington prudently dispatched fighter jets to the Baltics and Poland,
and warships to the Black Sea, after Putin’s seizure of Crimea. But there are
more pieces to move in Eastern Europe: The EU should send observers to Ukraine
to monitor elections, and Gen. Bob Scales
(USA-Ret.) recommends deployment of “American tanks in Poland to send a
message to Putin.”[xx]Washington also could build those permanent missile-defense sites in Eastern Europe. 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 ground-based interceptors in
The outlines of a NATO Arctic
partnership should move forward. The groundwork is in place: Denmark has
an Arctic command, Canada an Arctic training center, Norway an Arctic
headquarters; the Pentagon recently unveiled its first-ever Arctic strategy. It’s time for these NATO allies to coordinate
In addition, NATO should revisit
expansion. There’s momentum in Sweden for NATO membership,[xxii]and Georgia is eager for NATO to issue a Membership Action Plan, a pathway to
full membership.[xxiii] As
for Ukraine, with Kiev’s politics in flux, now is not the time for NATO
membership. But the West needs to view the besieged country as a partner to be
nurtured, not a problem to be managed. Washington has some work to do in this
regard: When Kiev asked for military equipment and intelligence this March,
the administration offered MREs.[xxiv]Food rations will not deter Putin.
Finally, Washington should
open America’s oil-and-gas spigot—and watch Putin’s petro-dollar economy
wither. Pumping more U.S. oil into the global market would drive prices down,
and delivering U.S. liquefied natural gas
(LNG) to Central Europe would weaken Putin’s grip on the region. But getting
LNG from the U.S. into Europe depends on U.S. export-terminal capacity, and that
depends on government approval.[xxv] Toward that end, several
European ambassadors to the U.S. recently urged House Speaker John
Boehner to initiate “congressional action to expedite LNG exports to America’s
To be sure, some of these policies will take time to bite,
but they send a firm message to Putin that swallowing Crimea is going to hurt.
That’s important in dealing with Putin. When the message is “hard
and consistent,” to use Putin’s language, Russia will take a cooperative
posture. When the message is muddled, Russia will take what it can get.
[v]http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/russia/7919113/Russia-approves-65-per-cent-defence-budget-increase.html ; http://www.csmonitor.com/layout/set/print/World/Europe/2012/0220/Fearing-West-Putin-pledges-biggest-military-buildup-since-cold-war ; http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/02/27/us-russia-military-clout-idUSBREA1Q1YR20140227.
[viii]March 9, 2014 Fox News Sunday.
[xv] Reagan, An American Life p.585.
[xx] Fox News Channel interview, http://video.foxnews.com/v/3308768891001/pentagon-confronting-putin-with-second-best-units/#sp=show-clips.
[xxii]http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304554004579422572239271130 ; http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/03/after-crimea-sweden-flirts-with-joining-nato/284362/.