For the past week, we’ve had to put up with a lot of grey little men from the foreign policy establishment lamenting that there’s really nothing we can do to deter Vladimir Putin from grabbing part or all of Ukraine. This is just a process of rationalization for the fact that they don’t really want us to try.
The do-nothing caucus will get a boost from Putin’s decision to pause as he digests Crimea. Putin may be irrational, but he’s not crazy. He has a good intuitive sense for how the West, and particularly the Obama administration, makes decisions. Or fails to make them. So he knows to act rapidly and decisively, overwhelming unprepared Western analysts and leaders with new facts on the ground. Then, just as they are beginning to formulate a response, stop and calm everything down so that the grey little men can assure us that the crisis is over and there is no need for urgent action.
But the crisis has not passed, because Putin’s larger intention remains. Putin’s authoritarian rule has been described as “Stalin Lite,” and it’s now clear that the goal of his foreign policy is to rebuild a “Soviet Union Lite.” He will keep stirring up trouble and probing for weakness in Eastern Ukraine, looking for the pretext and the opportunity to either grab another chunk of Ukraine or destabilize the central government. Other former Soviet states with significant Russian populations are certainly taking this seriously. They fear they’re next.
What’s at stake for the US is very simple. We’ve forgotten what’s like to have a big, active geopolitical opponent who’s stirring up trouble and supporting hostile regimes everywhere in the world. That is what Putin is doing, and the fact that he’s doing it in Eastern Europe is particularly threatening. We have enough trouble everywhere else in the world, so we need to know that Europe, at least, is civilized and stable, a place where we can find allies and trading partners—and not a zone of conflict. Now Putin is bringing war and aggression back to Europe.
The tragedy is that we’re plenty strong enough militarily, economically, and diplomatically to crush Putin’s ambitions. I have recommended using the Reagan Doctrine of the 1980s as an inspiration, but breaking Soviet Union Lite won’t take nearly as much money or effort as it took to defeat the original article. Putin’s new Russian empire is far smaller and weaker, having been reduced in territory, population, military readiness, and global influence.
So let’s get started. Putin has crossed too many lines, and it’s time to bring down the hammer. I’m not talking about what we can do to send him a warning or maybe punish him a little bit. I’m talking about what we can do to knock him down and kick him in the teeth.
Right now, Russia gets the shirtless manly man, while we’re stuck with Pajama-Boy-in-Chief. But Putin’s action-hero photo ops are staged, and it’s all just a big bluff. It’s time to expose Putin for what he is: a swaggering loud-mouth who talks big but gets his tail kicked the first time a real man decides to fight back.
Here is a list of suggested counterpunches.
First, we should do something that we are already doing: John Kerry should go to Kiev and stay there until Putin pulls his tanks back from the border. We need to do what we did when Putin invaded Georgia in 2008: send in a rotating contingent of Western foreign ministers and heads of state, letting Putin know that if he wants to advance on Kiev he’s going to have to threaten the top leaders of all the Western powers. It’s a way of extending a de facto military umbrella over the Western half of Ukraine and the central government without having to do it officially.
With this implicit defense in place, we should immediately begin helping Ukraine transform itself into a porcupine state capable of filling the Russian bear’s nose with prickles.
Putin’s pause after taking Crimea is a brilliant strategy, if he assumes that Western leaders don’t want to have to think about Ukraine and really don’t want to have to do anything about it. But if anyone in Kiev, Europe, or Washington has any gumption, then this pause is a colossal blunder. It will allow the new Ukrainian government an opportunity to regroup, to assure the loyalty of its armed forces (placed in doubt by a few key defections), and to consolidate its hold over Ukraine’s Eastern provinces. A few days ago, I was concerned that the Russians might be able to drive a column of tanks straight into Kiev without any organized resistance. But Putin’s pause has probably ensured that Crimea is all he can take without a nasty fight.
And Crimea may well be untenable on its own. It is, after all, a peninsula, connected to the mainland by the narrow little Perokop Isthmus, through which moves most of Crimea’s electricity, water, and food. So why not tell the Russians that if they want to occupy Crimea, they will be dark, hungry and thirsty? Putin’s approach to the remaining loyal Ukrainian forces in Crimea has been, not to shoot them, but to lay siege to them and wait them out. Once the government in Kiev feels secure in its hold on the East, it can besiege the besiegers. If Ukraine wants to be more provocative, it should launch a raid to sabotage the ferry terminal at Kerch, the closest point in Crimea to Russia, to prevent Russian reinforcements and resupply, tightening the siege.
The Ukrainian armed forces are much smaller than Russia’s—about 130,000 troops versus Russia’s 850,000. But those Russian troops have a whole lot of other territory to defend, so in practice, a fight in Ukraine would be a lot more balanced, even accounting for some mixed loyalties and defections on the Ukrainian side. Ukraine even makes its own anti-tank missiles, which would come in handy. Where Ukraine is overmatched, and where we can help the most, is with its air defenses. As a start, how about deploying an American-staffed battery of Patriot anti-ballistic missiles to Ukraine?
For that matter, we should revive the anti-ballistic missile facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic that President Obama canceled in 2009. The justification for that action was that the Russians aren’t a threat to Europe, so we shouldn’t be going out of our way to antagonize them. That premise has proven to be more than a little naive.
But military opposition is just the beginning. Just as potent is our economic power.
We should immediately impose economic sanctions on Russia, freeze the assets of its top officials, cut off its banks from the international economy, and impose trade restrictions—and we should require others to do it, just as we did when we were still trying to impose sanctions on Iran. We don’t do a lot of business with Russia, but Western Europe does, so this means we’re going to have to be tough will some of our allies, particularly Britain, which may want to protect the business it does with Russia’s politically connected billionaires, its “oligarchs.”
But Russia is only about 2% of the global economy. They need us a whole lot more than we need them.
Moreover, Putin is weak at home. His rule depends on shutting up his critics, and he may not have public support for his Ukraine adventure. Meanwhile, Russians are snapping up dollars and euros in a panic.
For the past twenty years, Russians have gotten used to the benefits of being connected to the global economy. There is the general benefit of being in an economy that is connected to global trade, and there is the individual benefit of being able to buy goods from abroad and also to seek business and employment abroad. What if we cut off those benefits? Let’s make sure every Russian knows how much Putin is going to cost them.
The only thing we would really miss if we shut off Russia’s economy is its oil and gas. Europe is particularly dependent on it. Fortunately, the fracking revolution in America makes us perfectly capable of solving this problem by flooding the world with cheap oil and gas. We could help provide for the immediate needs of Europe and Ukraine with shipments of liquid natural gas. Over the long run, what would really hurt Russia is an increase in supply that drives down oil and gas prices, reducing one of the Russian economy’s main sources of revenue.
This is what helped bury the Soviet Union. High oil prices in the 1970s propped up the Brezhnev regime—but the lower prices of the 80s left his successors unable to pay their bills. We can do that again. All that is required is to lift restrictions on exploration and production in the US, and to lift the ridiculous ban on exporting American oil. And while we’re at it, we can help the Ukrainians frack their own natural gas.
Then there’s diplomacy. Over at RealClearWorld, Alex Berezow has a good run-down of actions to take against Putin, which includes, “All democratic embassies in Russia should be closed.” But this is perhaps a bit too symbolic. Putin fancies himself a hard man who only respects action. So here’s something more substantive. The United States has entered into a couple of big international agreements, on Syria and Iran, that were brokered by Russia and are dependent on cooperation with Putin. These agreements serve Putin’s interests by allowing him to cultivate client states in the Middle East while blocking US action in the region. What they do for our interests isn’t so clear. So throw out the agreements with Syria and Iran. They’re falling apart anyway. Tell Putin that if he wants those agreements back, he’s going to have to talk to us.
Finally, we should resume the great project of expanding NATO. Certainly, we should renew our commitment to existing NATO nations that are under Russian threat, sending US troops to places like Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia as a guarantee against further aggression. We should then start putting Ukraine on a fast track to prepare it for NATO membership.
In the meantime, we should encourage our NATO allies in Eastern Europe—the ones who are also under Russian threat—to help defend Ukraine. As an intermediate step, I’ll return to a suggestion Jack Wakeland and I offered during the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008: form a new Warsaw Pact against Russia, a US-sponsored military alliance of states which, like Ukraine, are the borderlands between Russia and the West. Such an alliance would have the advantage of being more willing to assert itself in this kind of conflict because all of its members would share the same vital interest in stopping even small acts of Russian aggression.
Finally, we need to do as much of this as we can right now. We shouldn’t start by merely threatening to do these things or offering to negotiate about them. Let’s not treat Putin’s aggression in Ukraine as if it were the first provocation that indicates that maybe Putin’s heart isn’t in the right place. That happened a long time ago. Treat this as the last provocation that demonstrates Putin’s evil intent and makes it an urgent necessity to shut him down.
So far, Putin has been way inside our decision cycle, moving troops on the ground while our leaders are still just trying to figure out what’s going on. In the OODA loop—Observe, Orient, Decide, Act—Putin has been in the “A” mode, while President Obama can’t quite manage the first “O.”
Let’s put the shoe on the other foot. We need to act in a way that is big, sweeping, complex, and fast, leaving Putin as the one who is confused and scrambling to catch up, So implement all of this fully, right away. If Putin wants us to reverse any of it, he can ask to negotiate after we’ve made our move.
These are the things we might do if we had real, decisive leaders in the Washington. Perhaps that’s too much to expect from this administration, but let’s at least stop pretending that good options don’t exist. They do, and if we don’t use them, the fault isn’t our resources. It’s our leadership.
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