Give Vladimir Putin his due: the Russian strongman has an almost-animal instinct for sensing weakness and a preternatural sense of timing. He is putting both on display as he consolidates Russia’s historic hold on Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, sets in motion Ukraine’s partition and presents the West with a choice between trying to reverse a fait accompli or acquiescing to a naked act of aggression.
Putin is to blame for this mess. He is the neighborhood thug. However, President Barack Obama’s signals have done nothing to dissuade or deter. 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.”
Regrettably, Washington has signaled weakness repeatedly in recent years.
First, there was Obama’s “Russian reset.” The implication of the “reset” was twofold: the Bush administration’s approach to Moscow was somehow to blame for frosty U.S.-Russia relations, and Putin was eager to be Washington’s partner. Importantly, the “reset” ignored the fact that Russia had invaded NATO-aspirant Georgia in the closing months of the Bush administration.
A second signal was Obama’s unilateral decision to reverse NATO’s plan to deploy permanent missile-defense interceptors in Poland and missile-defense radars in the Czech Republic. Obama’s reversal pleased the Russians, but it humiliated the Poles and Czechs. A Polish defense official called the decision “catastrophic.” The Czech Republic rejected Washington’s plans for a watered-down, mobile system as “a consolation prize.”
A third signal was Obama’s mishandling of the crisis in Syria. By drawing a “red line” at chemical weapons, Obama staked his—and America’s—credibility on punishing Assad for any use of WMDs. But he didn’t follow through on his threat. To make matters worse, he sought a way out of his conundrum by accepting Putin’s promise to cajole Assad into handing over his chemical weapons. We now know Assad is not making good on his promises to disarm—and Putin is doing nothing about it.
A fourth signal was the nearly-trillion dollars in cuts Obama forced on the Pentagon. It’s axiomatic that deterrent strength depends on, well, strength. Putin knows that if the U.S. military has fewer resources, then America has slower reflexes, a shorter reach and a smaller global role. Doubtless, Putin saw the withdrawal last year of every remaining U.S. tank from Europe (a decision that was reversed last month) as proof of America’s waning will.
A fifth signal is Washington’s language. Obama famously promised “flexibility” to Putin’s predecessor/successor Dmitry Medvedev. Obama has seldom, if ever, used the bully pulpit to criticize Putin’s policies. And just last week, he declared that “any violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity would be deeply destabilizing, which is not in the interest of Ukraine, Russia or Europe.” There was no mention of U.S. interests in Ukraine. Putin got the message.
Contrast this with President Ronald Reagan’s response to the Soviet attack on Korean Air Lines flight 007. Reagan made it clear that Moscow’s act of aggression was “against ourselves…the Republic of Korea…the whole world and the moral precepts which guide human relations.” He said there was “absolutely no justification, either legal or moral” for the attack. He cut through the doubletalk spewed by Moscow’s diplomats, bluntly declaring, “They have spun a confused tale.” He used the attack as a chance to remind America and Europe about the true nature of the regime in Moscow, declassifying and sharing intercepted audio recordings of Soviet communications before, during and after the shoot-down. And he concluded there could be no business as usual: plans for a summit were shelved, restrictions were placed on Soviet civilian air traffic, bilateral agreements were suspended.
No, Reagan didn’t mobilize the 82nd Airborne in September 1983. And nor should Obama today. But Reagan knew there were many elements of American power that can be mobilized in response to aggression. That remains true today. Before we explore those options, it’s important to note that they will be complicated by several factors:
• First, Russia has a historic connection with the Crimea. Russia has maintained a naval base there dating to the 1700s. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet has a lease through 2042. The Russian military had several air and naval bases, surface and submarine assets, and a few thousand troops in the Crimea before the crisis (and many thousand more now). About 17 percent of Ukraine—and almost 60 percent of the Crimea—is ethnic Russian.
• Second, Russia owns the real estate now—and has demonstrated its capacity and willingness to hold it. The only thing worse than Russia seizing part of Ukraine and menacing its democratically elected government is Russia taking half of Ukraine and overthrowing its democratically elected government. It will be interesting to see if the people of Ukraine consider Ukraine a sovereign country with Russian and Ukrainian elements, or an artificial construct of Russian and Ukrainian statelets. We know what Putin thinks.
• Third, Russia supplies oil and gas to Ukraine.
• Fourth, Russia is a nuclear power with global interests and the capability to defend those interests—and challenge America’s. Indeed, Russia has invaded and dismembered a sovereign Georgia, waged cyber-war against Estonia, used energy supplies as a weapon against Central Europe, provided diplomatic and military cover for Assad, unilaterally claimed a vast swath of the Arctic, violated the INF Treaty, harbored fugitive spy Edward Snowden and conducted a series of increasingly provocative war games on NATO’s borders. Flush with petro-dollars, Putin is increasing military spending—a 65-percent increase in the past three years—and plans to deploy 2,300 new tanks, 600 new warplanes, 400 new ICBMs and 50 new warships in the next decade.
In short, Russia is ruled by an autocrat who understands only the language of power. That reality leads us to some concrete actions that Washington can take to re-reset U.S.-Russia relations. Putin must know the consequences will be real and lasting.
Use the Bully Pulpit
Obama should remind the world what the people Kiev did to invite Putin’s wrath: they took a step toward the West, protested when their president tried to yank them back toward Moscow and then ousted him when he gunned them down by the dozens. None of this threatened Ukraine’s neighbors or ethnic minorities.
Obama should use his formidable rhetorical skills to raise the issue of Putin’s dubious political legitimacy—publicly and repeatedly. Czar Vladimir has engineered his way from prime minister to president to prime minister to president in the past 14 years. As Robert Kagan observes, “Elections do not offer a choice but only a chance to ratify choices made by Putin.”
And Obama should expose to the light Putin’s assault on human rights by offering a platform to those mistreated by Putin and his puppets—free-speech activists and bloggers, rock bands and independent media, human rights activists and evangelical Christians, political dissidents and those persecuted for their sexual orientation. As Reagan counseled, “a little less détente…and more encouragement to the dissenters might be worth a lot of armored divisions.”
Swing the Diplomatic Stick
It’s time for Russia to be removed from the G-8. Before 1998, it was a club of liberal industrialized democracies. If Russia ever met the membership criteria, it certainly doesn’t today.
In addition, the EU and U.S. should fashion a long-term aid and trade package for Ukraine, making it clear that Americans and Europeans see Ukraine as part of the West—as a partner to be nurtured, not a problem to be managed. The package should include EU monitors to make sure Ukraine doesn’t slide toward civil war—and make sure Russia doesn’t foment another crisis.
Stop Whittling away at the Big Stick
It’s time to reacquaint Russia with the U.S. military’s deterrent strength—and technological superiority—by reversing efforts to slash defense spending. That would translate into stopping the slide toward sequestration’s guillotine, recapitalizing the Navy, reopening the F-22 production line, speeding up development of the Long Range Strike Bomber, and scrapping plans to cut Army and Marine Corps end-strength.
Shape up SHAPE
Related, NATO has been begging its members to invest 2 percent of GDP on defense. Only three members meet that standard today. The United States should lead an alliance-wide effort to help each member develop an action plan to lift their defense budgets to the 2-percent threshold.
While they’re at it, the allies need to remind themselves that they’re part of a military alliance. Yes, it has a political role, but that’s secondary to the mission of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE). Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty—NATO’s all-for-one collective defense clause—is the backbone of the alliance. Yet Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide worries about NATO’s ability “to deliver if something happens in the transatlantic theater of a more classical type of aggression.” If NATO’s members do not take Article V seriously, neither will NATO’s enemies.
To remedy this perception, NATO recently recommitted itself to “a robust exercise and training program” featuring “high-intensity, large-scale exercises.” The first of these—held in late 2013—was NATO’s largest live-fire military drill in nearly eight years. The exercise was conducted in Poland, Latvia and the Baltic Sea, which certainly sent a message to Moscow. Perhaps NATO’s next exercise should be held in Hungary, Bulgaria and the Black Sea—all of which border Ukraine.
Finally, NATO needs to end the charade that is the NATO-Russia Council. Ukraine is not a NATO member. But given that Russia knows Ukraine has a special relationship with NATO and the U.S.—cooperative training programs, collaborative deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, the NATO-Ukraine Commission—it’s obvious what former KGB commissar Putin thinks about NATO’s extended hand.
Start Playing Chess
“Our approach,” Obama said a weeks before the Crimea crisis, “is not to see these as some Cold War chessboard in which we’re in competition with Russia.”
The problem is that Putin is playing chess. And he’s winning.
Playing chess is about seeing the whole board, thinking ahead, moving pieces on one side of the board to impact the other. Obama has many moves to make on the global chessboard.
Obama could revive plans for permanent missile-defense sites in Eastern Europe. Since taking them off the table was not in America’s interests and did not placate Putin, putting them back on the table makes good sense. 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 permanent ground-based interceptors in Alaska.
Obama could move the outlines of a NATO Arctic partnership from the drawing board to the real world. The groundwork has already been laid: Norway, the U.S., Canada and Denmark—all NATO allies—have conducted Arctic military maneuvers in recent years.
Moscow has always bristled at America’s post-9/11 presence in Central Asia. The U.S. is winding down operations at an airbase in Kyrgyzstan, to Moscow’s delight. Thus, Washington should move quickly to ink basing agreements with the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan, and it should solidify under-the-radar ties with the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan.
Washington should declare the Putin-brokered chemical weapons deal dead, citing Assad’s failure to meet key deadlines, and give the Saudis and Turks a green light to carve out buffer zones inside Syria’s borders for helping refugees and arming rebels.
Finally, Washington should open up the North American oil spigot, allow an energy superpower to be born and watch Putin’s petro-dollar economy collapse.
The obvious problem with these proposals is that Obama is no Reagan. Reagan was one of those rare American leaders comfortable with burnishing American ideals and playing hard ball to defend American interests. Obama seems uncomfortable with the former and incapable of the latter. But just as Afghanistan changed President Carter, perhaps Ukraine will change President Obama.