Although shooting has begun in Ukraine, there are no guarantees about where things will go in the next few days.
For all the bellicosity of the Russian posture, I suspect Vladimir Putin would rather wangle a negotiated outcome, as long as it’s favorable to his long-term plans. A major fight in Ukraine would be costly, and would pin Russia down there to an undesirable extent. The forces Russia has assembled on Ukraine’s border are substantially greater than what Ukraine can bring to a fight, and they outweigh NATO’s ready assets as well. But they are not so overwhelming that Russia could easily steamroll a determined resistance from Ukraine.
Russia’s strategic situation
Russia’s reputation would have to be put on the line for a venture whose outcome can’t be guaranteed. Her economy, alliances, internal unity – the components of strategic depth – are not in such good shape that Russia could capitalize quickly on a high-cost win.
So it’s likely that Putin would prefer a low-cost win. He wants to induce Ukraine to fall. The best way to do that would be to get the U.S. and EU onboard with a “peace” plan: one that lulls the West into a sense of settlement. The prospect of “four-party talks,” which has hardly penetrated popular coverage in the West, is being touted relentlessly in the Russian media.
Of course Russia wants talks. Talks are a way to put the imprimatur of international acceptance on the land grab in Crimea. From the Crimean redoubt, Russia can take her time bringing down a fledgling government in Kiev, administering the water torture of fomented separatism and adverse propaganda against a vulnerable Maidan Ukraine, which will assuredly be no better or worse than any pastiche of politically diverse constituencies in Eastern Europe.
It’s still possible, of course, that Russia will mount a full-scale military operation. Ukraine retook one eastern Ukrainian air base on Tuesday, and has launched an operation to retake a second one from Russian proxy militants. It would be absurd to suggest that a Russian national interest has been menaced by these actions, but Putin could make them an excuse to move in.
We’ll know soon enough. I won’t be surprised if he doesn’t, as long as Ukraine doesn’t take things any further. From Russia’s perspective, holding Crimea is a strategically stable position: one from which Russia can’t be easily dislodged. Russian forces don’t have to go out on a limb to defend guerrilla gains outside Crimea. Such ephemeral gains can be given up at little cost for now, without disturbing Russia’s newly established center of gravity.
The real point of the proxy campaign in eastern Ukraine is to keep Kiev off balance and ensure “negotiations” are necessary. Moscow’s bad faith in this whole saga has been helpfully documented by the UN, which just published a report on Russia’s chronic lying about what’s going on in Ukraine. At a remove of a quarter century from the period of Soviet Cold War predation, Americans and West Europeans may have lost touch with the arsenal of political weapons the Russian KGB deployed against its foreign targets. But Russia’s neighbors haven’t.
The West’s strategic inertia
The sense of wearying familiarity is heightened by the certainty that America will take no useful initiative in this crisis. We haven’t done nothing. But the few things we have done have been intensely annoying to Russia, without establishing a clear and positive U.S. policy. I believe they have daunted Putin just enough to keep him on the side of moving slowly. But that doesn’t mean they have been sufficiently effective. It means that we could be effective – without starting a shooting war – if we took some actions more relevant to the crisis itself.
NATO is bristling a little, but is not taking actions that would indicate an intention to defend any part of Ukraine. The NATO nations have beefed up our combat air patrol posture over the Baltic Republics to the north, and have mounted an AWACS (airborne early warning) presence over Poland and Romania. (See here for a summary.) The U.S. and France have rotated a handful of warships (and a couple of French auxiliary ships, including an intelligence collector) into the Black Sea. These ships, like the fighter patrols in the Baltic and the AWACS presence in Eastern Europe, are gestures, not indications of specific intent regarding Ukraine. There is literally no useful combat effect that the ships can have on any armed conflict that might erupt in Ukraine. Involving themselves in it would invite Russian retribution, however, and in a situation where the ships are hopelessly overmatched.
Meanwhile, the U.S. is trading strategic “signals” with Russia. In late March, Russian officials disclosed a plan to base Tu-22M Backfire bombers at the Russian naval air base in Crimea, a move that would ratchet up the menace to NATO allies Turkey, Romania, and Hungary, as well as to Ukraine. On 2 April, the U.S. Air Force conducted a “global air-power” training flight with B-2 and B-52 bombers, which launched from their bases in the continental United States to perform bombing runs at a range in Hawaii.
On 12 April, of course, the Russians buzzed USS Donald Cook (DDG-75) in the Black Sea. And on Monday, 14 April, they test-launched a MIRVed ICBM that has – from its inception – violated the START treaties.
The pointless posturing and tit-for-tatting have the familiar stink of stale cigarette smoke. The movies invest this stuff with clever dialogue and set it to music, but in real life, it’s just banal and depressing, as it was throughout the Cold War. What’s missing is a positive American vision: a vigorous, creative policy for us to pursue and Russia to have to react to.
The vision thing
Obama isn’t going to give us that. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. There is much else we could be doing. First, Ukraine needs armament, principally in the form of air defense, intelligence capability, and the implied promise of air-support coordination with NATO. Ukraine needs to be hardened as a target. The cost of going after her must be high.
Second, Russia needs to pay a price for grabbing Crimea. That price must be high. If the Western allies had guts and vision, the price would be Syria – and the West would move in on Cyprus and Greece with all the credits, opportunity, and tough love we can muster. Realistically, there’s no restoring the status quo ante in Ukraine; Crimea has gone to Russia. But Russia’s method was intolerable, and her victory should be Pyrrhic. (The West should break the exclusivity of Russia’s relationship with Syria in any case. The justifications for that go well beyond the current face-off with Putin.)
The high price for aggression has to be established before NATO can move on to what we should have been doing all along, which is rebalancing the liberal (“classical liberal”), Europe-centered basis for peace and stability across the Northern hemisphere. There was never a need to back, unthinking, into the hostile stance Russia and the West have settled back into. The fault is spread across many actors and dynamics in the last two decades, none of which is singularly or even mainly to blame. Obama has dramatically accelerated a Western trend of inward-looking fecklessness, but he didn’t start it.
The West missed a big opportunity in 2008, when Dmitry Medvedev made a proposal hardly any Westerner-in-the-street even knows about. The proposal itself wasn’t necessarily something we could buy into. But the process of renegotiation – and in particular, the acknowledgment that the basis of NATO relations with Russia needed to change – was a timely and valid concept.
What the West should have done then was up the ante. Russia tabled her vision; we should have responded with ours. Of course, the problem is that, in effect, we did. Our vision was just small-minded, irritable, and rearward-looking.
We are where we are now, and Russian aggression has to be dealt with before there can be rewards. Of all outcomes, the worst would be Putin thinking he reaped big rewards from aggression.
Sadly, however, the slow-motion train wreck we’re watching seems to promise just that. The paralysis in Washington and other Western capitals makes this whole topic very hard to write about. There’s so little point in rehearsing the incidental particulars of a history that appears to be written in advance. It doesn’t help to know that it would be just as bad if Obama and the European leaders were “doing something.” Purpose and strategy don’t tend themselves, and no one in charge seems to have a view to either. Acting, without a plan, would just expose a lot of American and other NATO troops to dangers, but minus the payoff in a better peace.
So we wait, perhaps for the inevitable. Wherever we end up, it will be a new starting point. We shouldn’t lose hope about that.