In a stunning sequence of events, the Russian military opened fire then seized three Ukrainian navy vessels in an unprovoked attack on the Black Sea last Sunday. In the melee, several Ukrainian sailors were wounded and 24 captured. Moscow followed up this flagrant act of war by parading the sailors on Russian television to give clearly coerced confessions of guilt.
This attack is but the latest escalation in the ongoing Russian war against Ukraine that has been churning since 2014. It’s also the first great test for the Trump administration regarding Russia and one that will have lasting consequences on the future of Europe and the world.
Moscow’s Strategy Of Ambiguity
The war in Ukraine began in 2014 after Russian special forces seized Crimea. The tactic Moscow used is what I dubbed, in U.S. Army publications, “the strategy of ambiguity.” Putin directed that his troops remove all symbols and anything else that would identify them as Russian soldiers.
This had the desired effect, as American journalists breathlessly reported of the ridiculously labeled “little green men” from unknown origins taking control of Crimea. President Obama and the rest of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies wrung their hands on what to do. The tactic worked––as President Obama dithered, Russia seized Crimea within a week without firing a shot in anger.
The takeover of Crimea was quickly followed by local referenda to ascertain if Crimea desired to become part of Russia––a vote, of course, that overwhelmingly supported the idea. The deal was sealed just a month after the little green men seized the country, with Putin announcing that Crimea would be annexed by Russia.
His speech was given to the Duma (Russia’s parliament) with much fanfare, but had chilling similarities to another dark time in history. Putin proclaimed that it was his duty and responsibility to protect ethnic Russians wherever they reside. This begs the question: how far geographically does his ethnic-based strategy extend?
Although Putin’s war against Ukraine is going into its fourth year, there has been a disconcerting pattern of aggression from him for more than a decade. The first test was an all-out cyber attack against NATO member Estonia in 2007, attributable to Russia. The attack was launched by Moscow in retaliation for Estonia’s decision to move a Soviet-era war shrine out of the center of its capital, Tallinn, after it became a hotbed of ethnic Russian unrest. The cyber attack punished Estonia for not heeding Moscow’s demands not to move the monument.
The next test came in 2008, when Russia launched a massive invasion of the nation of Georgia, which had most of its small army deployed in Iraq fighting an American war. When the guns fell silent, Moscow formally annexed two large swaths of Georgian territory, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Encouraged by the lack of resolve in the United States and its allies, Moscow followed up in 2014 with the invasion and annexation of Crimea, and with Putin’s now-infamous speech of ethnic expansionism. President Obama faltered in the face of the Russian aggression and failed to do anything substantive to deter further aggression.
Putin’s Quiet War
Buoyed by this appeasement and weakness, Putin took the next bold step of exporting an ethnic Russian uprising in eastern Ukraine. That war has droned on now for four years, leaving behind 10,000 dead and a rebel force largely in Luhansk and Donetsk with more tanks (compliments of Moscow) than the German army has in its inventory. The Ukrainians have done well in blunting the Moscow-led, -planned, and -orchestrated attack on their nation, but at a high cost in lives and treasure.
Putin’s problem is that, at this point, he needs to avoid a direct confrontation with the United States and NATO. He is in a precarious position economically and his military is still two years from completing part of its modernization and overhaul. Moscow has found in the latest rounds of aggression that using a fabricated proxy force in Ukraine as a cover to provide plausible deniability that it’s truly behind the conflict. This is what makes the Russian naval attack on Ukraine significant. It is the first overt and direct confrontation between Moscow and Kiev since 2014.
The stalemate in Eastern Ukraine is costly to Putin financially and politically. When Moscow deployed its special forces and intelligence operatives into Donesk and Luhansk in early 2014, by all accounts, Russia expected a quick victory by the “rebels” who would then ask to be incorporated into greater Russia. This did not happen and Ukraine’s armed forces have been able to prevent Moscow from declaring any sort of victory there.
It seems that the Russian navy attack in the Black Sea is another avenue to bring Ukraine to its knees, by severing its access to the Kerch Straits and the Azov Sea. Putin has slowly strangled Kiev’s lifeline to this vital area over the past months by limiting the number of vessels that could pass through the straits where 25 percent of Ukrainian exports flow to the west and elsewhere.
The Russian attack on the Ukrainian navy this past Sunday is Putin’s pretext to seal off the Kerch Straits from all Ukrainian shipping, and will bring Kiev to its knees economically. The move is a brilliant one for Moscow. By taking this “indirect approach,” Putin will be in a position to break the Ukrainians economically and outflank them militarily by sea east of Crimea.
Appeasement Only Emboldens Expansionist Leaders
The lesson of the past is that appeasement and accommodation only emboldens expansionist leaders. Putin pressed the West for more than a decade and faced tepid responses. If this latest provocation by Putin remains unchallenged, the Ukrainian economy will collapse, and the relative stalemate on its eastern front will result in a Russian breakthrough. The simple fact is that Kiev cannot maintain its forces there with the disintegration of its economy or being entirely cut off from the Sea of Azov.
This need not be an American war; Ukraine can fight and win it with the right policy and tools at its disposal. In the short term, the United States and NATO should increase its supply of Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine to tip the scales back into balance in the land battle. Additionally, anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles should be provided to Kiev to defend against this latest Russian provocation.
Furthermore, all NATO countries, especially Germany, must cease purchasing Russian oil and gas. Europe’s addiction to Moscow’s energy has made them unwilling and unable to take a determined stand against Putin’s expanding torrent of aggression in the region. This explains Angela Merkel’s consistently tepid response to Russian aggression––Merkel needs Russian oil and gas, and any interruption of it would have catastrophic results for Germany’s economy.
Since most of Western Europe spends barely 1 percent of their GDP on defense, they owe it to the United States to build liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals on the North Sea and pay a little extra to import American energy. It is madness to enrich a leader in Russia who spends that revenue to create a military force that threatens European security. Once Europe is weaned off Russian energy, an effective economic embargo can be implemented that will discourage Russia from behaving badly.
We Must Not Tolerate This
It is time to draw the line in the sand and not tolerate this provocation. President Trump is facing his first test from Putin and must come out with an unequivocal statement condemning Moscow for its blatant aggression against Ukraine, then follow it up with concerted action.
Putin is a regional bully who only understands strength. America is being tested, both in its commitment to the European alliance and its resolve to maintain the international order. Failure to act will result in the collapse of Ukraine’s economy and rout of its forces on its eastern front. If this happens, the spark of freedom there will be snuffed out yet again by Russian imperialism.
It is imperative that the United States and the entire NATO membership stand unified against Putin’s “ethnic-Russian” ambitions in Europe and meet any further challenges with concerted action and force. If the United States falters, expect Russia to test NATO’s resolve in the Baltics, especially Estonia and Latvia, both of which have large ethnic Russian populations.
This would be a show-changer for the United States, as these nations are NATO members and, under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, we are obligated to come to their aid if they are attacked. How such a war would look I address extensively in a publicly available document called Project 1721.
But it need not come to this. Putin can be stopped in Ukraine, and if he is stopped there, we will have averted a global war and given Europe another generation of peace.