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 dispute:

-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 for drink.[iii]

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 next decade.[v]

-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 weakness.”[ix]

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 very opposite.

In 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.

Big Stick

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.

The 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, large-scale exercises.”[xvi]The 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.

Finally, NATO should shutter the NATO-Russia Council. It’s obvious what Putin thinks about NATO’s extended hand.

Bully Pulpit
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 down.

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 armored divisions.” 

“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.

Russia 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 Alaska.[xxi]

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 their efforts.

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 allies.”[xxvi]


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.  

[vi]http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2082207,00.html .


[viii]March 9, 2014 Fox News Sunday.








[xv] Reagan, An American Life p.585.

[xvi] http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/topics_98527.htm




[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/.



[xxv] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-03-07/years-needed-for-lng-exports-to-blunt-russia-energy-sales.html

[xxvi] http://www.nationaljournal.com/library/122907