A Growing Dilemma

In case you lost track, events in Ukraine are increasingly leading towards a chance of significant conflict. Today, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Francois Hollande of France traveled to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin concerning the escalating fighting in Ukraine.

Roughly a year ago, Chancellor Merkel stated that she would no longer deal with President Putin until he became serious about working for a solution to the problem in Ukraine.  Nothing has changed regarding Putin’s stance on events there.  He continues to claim that there is no Russian involvement there and that, indeed, NATO troops are the bulk of the fighters for the “illegal” Ukrainian government. Yet Merkel felt it necessary, along with the other most influential leader in continental Europe, to go to Moscow. This demonstrates their concern that the situation in Ukraine is becoming increasingly dangerous. Influencing their decision to meet with Putin is a growing sentiment in the United States Congress and with senior advisers to President Obama that the United States should provide the Ukrainian army with increased aid, including heavy weapons.  At present, the U.S. supplies only non-lethal aid and diplomatic support to the Ukrainians.

Last September, the Ukrainians and pro-Russia separatists agreed to a ceasefire that held, with some exceptions, until early this year.  Since the new year began, the separatists have launched several offensives to expand their territory to the west and south.  Fierce fighting in cities and towns left scores of civilians dead, in addition to casualties among those fighting.  The situation continues to escalate. Secretary of State John Kerry was in Ukraine this week to renew U.S. pledges of support to the Ukrainian government and to call for renewed sanctions if Russia does not bring the fighting to a halt. Indeed, last week, the European Union voted to consider increased sanctions against Russia.

You will recall that I wrote about this subject last September (“Where Do We Go From Here?”) and stated that over time, the events in Ukraine potentially provide a bigger threat to our long-term strategic goals than does ISIS.  I also pointed out that European leaders should review their history as NATO was formed for this exact reason — to protect Europe from Soviet (Russian) invasion. Ukraine of course is not a member of NATO, but the threat is the same and nothing that Putin and the Russians have done since last fall provides any shred of evidence that the Russians intend to stay out of Ukraine.  In fact, it is very much the opposite, and in my mind, the situation is even more dangerous. Yet the United States, and indeed all of Europe, walk a tenuous high wire trying to balance our strategic interests elsewhere in the world, while working to inhibit Russian adventurism.

According to most experts, the sanctions have had a real impact on the Russian economy.  The exchange rate for the Russian ruble plummeted over the course of 2014 and the Russian economy is suffering. Even Putin admits that the economy is in bad shape but places the blame squarely on the West and claims that western nations are trying to destroy Russia.  Exacerbating their economic woes is the plunging price of oil, which until the bottom dropped out of the market, allowed Russian economic policies to continue through oil revenue.  No longer.

Given the extent and effectiveness of Russian propaganda within their own population, Putin has been able to build an “us against them” mentality.  Historically, what is the track record of nations run by dictators and near dictators when they face economic troubles or domestic unrest? They drum up a problem outside the country’s borders, rally the population around (in this case) the Motherland, and blame all internal problems on external forces. Putin and his cronies are experts at this.  The tightening of sanctions only validates his story.

At the same time, when Ukrainian and Western European leaders call on the Russians to withdraw from eastern Ukraine, the Russians claim that there are no Russian troops, equipment or aid to the so-called rebels fighting for their “freedom.”  It is difficult to imagine how the West will get Putin to withdraw his forces from Ukraine when he steadfastly argues that none are there.

Other complicating factors to unified western action include:

  • the close economic ties of several European nations to Russia
  • the requirement for unanimous consent among the European Union’s twenty-eight nations to take action on further sanctions or anything else
  • the same requirement for the twenty-eight nations in NATO (not all the same ones as in the EU)
  • the need to have Russia at the table to bring Iran to heel
  • the many cooperative endeavors between Russia and the U.S. not the least of which is the manning and resupply of the International Space Station
  • the many other areas of strategic interest around the world where Russia must either be included, or pacified to keep them from meddling.

In short, given the degree of the response from the West, the large number of areas where western nations want Russian cooperation, and the positive impact on Russian domestic politics of continued adventures in Ukraine, with little to no adverse effects, Putin has no incentive to cease his meddling.

So, what can be done?  As I wrote last September, as a minimum the West should:

  • Provide the Ukrainian military with the supplies, including heavy weapons, that they require to combat the immediate threat posed by trained Russian “volunteers.” These Russians operate weapons beyond the capability of Ukrainian “farmers” and “factory workers” rebelling against the central Ukrainian government.
  • Provide training to Ukrainian military leaders at the tactical and operational levels to instill a long-term ability to combat Russian military adventures.
  • Increase the numbers and types of rotational deployments of United States military forces to the Baltic states and eastern Europe.  These deployments underline the importance the United States puts on the tenants of the NATO treaty and the independence of nations.  Although such deployments are underway, it is at small levels with minimal impact on public or diplomatic perceptions.
  • Increase meaningful sanctions on the Russian economy.  This will necessarily impose hardships on some sectors of the European economy, but the costs of dealing with Putin will only increase over time.

To be sure, there are dangers in this approach, or any approach that Putin feels threatens Russia. Some caution that arming the Ukrainian military and escalating the conflict only plays into Putin’s hands, providing an opening for invading Ukraine and leading to a much wider conflict, with more casualties, and one that the West does not have the will to stop.  Indeed, Russia holds the strategic and tactical advantage in geography, troop levels, and will to win.  It is unclear that the EU or NATO will be willing to engage Russia militarily should Putin decide to expand his adventure in Ukraine and annex large parts of the country as he did in Crimea.  Putin declared last fall that he could “march into Kiev” at any time — he had only to give the order.  Some argue that the West could give him the incentive do so if the situation escalates through increased military support or harsher sanctions.

In my view, Putin is playing the long game and will continue his adventurism until he is stopped.  The sooner the West demonstrates its resolve and the sooner that he feels actual consequences to his actions, the sooner he will look for a diplomatic solution.  In the end, only diplomatic solutions will provide a long-lasting resolution to this crisis.  However, it is clear that increased military resistance is the only thing that is going to make Putin decide to end his shenanigans.  And it is the only thing that will keep him from playing similar games to restore other portions of the former Soviet Union. In addition to Crimea, one need only look at Georgia, Chechnya, and Moldova to see that Putin will not hesitate to use his Armed Forces in the interest of “protecting” Russians.  A quick survey of the map and a review of nations formerly part of the Soviet Union, or in its sphere of domination, will determine that there are large ethnic Russian populations in many other areas that Putin could decide to “protect.”

Putin will only stop meddling when he determines that the costs outweigh the benefits.  To date, he is a long way from that conclusion.  It is time for the West to demonstrate true resolve.


Where Do We Go From Here?

“Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.”  — Oliver Hardy

After only a cursory glance at the headlines of the past few days, it is easy to discern that a lot of troublesome events are occurring around the world.  Two of the biggest, in my mind, involve the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the continuing rampage of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS — although apparently the United States government is using the abbreviation ISIL, or Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).

On the recent Sunday news talk shows, and elsewhere, there has been much finger-pointing and “coulda, woulda, shoulda” type of talk as to what needed to be done in the past.  While somewhat productive in order to prevent future mistakes, the backward looking finger-pointing does nothing to resolve the situation at hand.  It is disappointing, especially as many of the critics in the Senate and the House offer no way forward, only criticism of the President’s leadership or lack thereof. Unfortunately, the President showed a lot of candor but gave a disappointing public statement when he said last Thursday that we have no strategy for Syria.  Those of us who have studied such things would argue that there is no clear policy either, so without either concept, there can be no policy-strategy match.  As everyone who has taken even the most basic course in such things knows, the great disasters of military history are most often the result of a policy-strategy mismatch.

So, what do I say we should do so as not to be one of those backward looking critics that produce very little?  I am struggling with it — it’s a tough nut to crack in all respects, which is why most of the critics would rather look back at what should have been done rather than forward as to what to do.

Part of the significant background that sometimes goes missing in each of the cases — Ukraine and ISIS — is that no one, at least no one that anyone takes seriously, is advocating that American ground combat troops get involved in either situation.  (Can we please stop saying “boots on the ground?”  No one I know in the military uses that expression.  It is used mostly by pundits and politicians trying to use the latest lingo without really understanding what they are saying.) Even the strongest advocates of using American military power are really only advocating the use of American air power and some supporting intelligence units and special operations groups to find and identify targets.  Unfortunately, I can think of no significant conflict involving the use of American military power that has been won solely in the air. Ground troops, either our’s or someone else’s working with us are required in order to defeat, or even to significantly degrade the forces at work.  Thus we are back to diplomatic efforts to build some sort of coalition to fight the invaders and/or build up the host country so that it can fight on its own terms.  This takes time.  Sometimes, lots of time.

Currently, the Obama Administration is trying to build a coalition on both fronts to confront the Russians in Ukraine and ISIS in Iraq.  The Russians are more of a direct threat to Europe than the United States and ISIS is a direct threat to every country in the Middle East.  Yet, trying to get other nations to take action has been difficult at best.  One could question whether or not the difficulty is partly of our own making, given the ambivalent messages that the President has put forward during the last 12-15 months.  It is time to step up and put some direct pressure on our allies and friends to come together and not just leave it to the United States to solve the problem.  Fortunately, a few national leaders in Europe are starting to come around, but not enough and not very quickly.

I am more worried about Ukraine, in terms of long-term implications to the United States, than I am about ISIS. This is not to say that I underestimate that maniacal organization.  Both situations are extremely serious to the United States and its interests, but I think strategically, Russian actions in Ukraine are more detrimental to our long-term interests. Unfortunately, that crisis is not getting the same sort of attention from our leaders, at least according to what I see in news accounts, as is ISIS.  So let me address that first.  As I do so, remember from my 9 August post that the basic function of military forces is to deter, defend, defeat.

Vladimir Putin is neither deterred, nor defeated by the threat of sanctions.  That is clear in his actions so far.  And sanctions do little to nothing to defend against an attack.  This is not to say that sanctions should not be applied, only that what the Europeans have done thus far is only mildly irritating to Putin in the pursuit of his ambitions.  Particularly troubling were reports about a television appearance he made in Russia on Friday where Putin openly talked about creating a new state in eastern Ukraine.  It is not only for propaganda purposes that Putin and many Russians talk about Novorossiya, or the new Russia.  It is a historical term that denotes most of eastern and southern Ukraine along the Azov and Black Seas.  Indeed, this is the area of the latest Russian invasion (and yes, I understand the President said “incursion” in order not to create the conditions where we must act.  But that’s what it is).  The latest Russian military moves occurred for two reasons.  First, the Ukrainian military was defeating the “volunteer” Russian and separatist forces in eastern Ukraine.  The simple operational move to relieve pressure on those forces is to open a new front, and that’s what they did, thereby giving the Ukrainian military too much to handle.  Secondly and strategically, the move along the sea creates a corridor to create a land bridge between Crimea (annexed by Russia from Ukraine last spring) and other areas of Russian interest.

Remember, and I wish European leaders would review their history,  that NATO was formed for the exact, and at the time the only, reason to protect Europe from Soviet (Russian) invasion.  Although Ukraine is not a member of NATO, it seems that the leadership in Europe should see the writing on the wall.  Putin is testing the waters of European resolve in order to see what type of resistance he will get as he tries to regain Russian dominance and restore the Russian Empire, goals he openly talks about.  Weak sanctions will not do it.  So far there have been no substantive consequences to stop his territorial ambitions.

So, what should be done?  The following actions within NATO and the European Union are not exhaustive as I am sure there are additional courses of action being considered.  As a minimum the west should:

  • Provide the Ukrainian military with the supplies, including heavy weapons, that they require to combat the immediate threat.
  • Provide training to Ukrainian military leaders at the tactical and operational levels to instill a long-term ability to combat Russian military adventures.
  • Increase the numbers and types of rotational deployments of United States military forces to the Baltic states and eastern Europe to underline the importance the United States puts on the tenants of the NATO treaty and the independence of nations.
  • Impose meaningful sanctions on the Russian economy.  This will necessarily impose hardships on some sectors of the European economy.  The western world is either serious about this threat or it isn’t.  To me there is a certain element of “pay me now or pay me later”.  The costs of dealing with Putin will only go up over time.
  • Convene a high level diplomatic conference involving all meaningful players, and put the pressure on Russia to cease its adventures in Ukraine while trying to accommodate legitimate concerns of vital importance to Russia. This should not mean throwing Ukraine under the bus, but could include some semi-autonomy in parts of eastern Ukraine under international observers.

Putin is playing the long game.  The sooner the west demonstrates to him our resolve and the sooner that he feels actual consequences to his actions, the sooner he will look for a diplomatic solution.

Defeating ISIS takes a different skill set.  ISIS will not come to the negotiating table, nor should we even hint at any kind of compromise.  However, diplomatic and political efforts must be made along with any military effort.  Iraq must get its political house in order so that the efforts of its military are not seen in Sunni or Shiite terms only.  Defeating ISIS also means that we are helping Bashar al-Assad and his murderous regime in Syria and aiding the strategic interests of the Iranians.  Both results are inimical to our own interests.

So what should be done?  The United States cannot do this alone.  While we have the military means to fight ISIS, air power alone cannot stop their reign of terror and the United States should not reintroduce ground combat troops to fight the ISIS army.  The nations in the area must also recognize the threat that ISIS holds for them as well and take actions to:

  • Pressure Turkey to close its borders.  Intelligence reports indicate that fighters, supplies and weapons are moving freely back and forth across the border with Syria.  Turkey is a member of NATO.  Push them to shut down this avenue of supply.
  • Pressure Saudi Arabia and other Arab states to cut off funding to ISIS.  Wealthy Sunni Arabs are secretly supplying funds and supplies to ISIS.
  • Enlist Jordan, Qatar, Turkey and others to train and equip moderate fighters in Syria to increase their strength and ability to counter the Bashar al-Assad regime, and thereby pull fighters away from ISIS, as well as furthering a more moderate force in the area.
  • Push for a ground offensive from the Iraqi military.  American air power can support ground attacks, but cannot alone defeat ISIS.
  • Equip Kurdish and other fighters that have a proven combat record.
  • Continue intelligence work to find and decapitate the ISIS leadership.  They have many dedicated fighters.  They have also become a haven for the world’s psychopaths out for a good time.  Without key leaders, the various factions within the group would fragment.
  • Continue to push the Iraqi government to get its political house in order.  The disenfranchisement of Sunnis in Iraq adds fighters to the ISIS ranks.  With a coalition government that genuinely looks out for the interests of all Iraqis, not just Shiites, some of the fighters from ISIS that do not share their apocalyptic view of the world may melt away.
  • Continue intelligence work in the United States and elsewhere to identify and impede the travels of potential recruits wishing to join ISIS.

ISIS is an evil force that must be excised.  The United States is a key player in getting an organized effort to eradicate them.  However, the United States should not, and cannot be the only nation combating this threat if we are to succeed in making it irrelevant.

Critics of the President say that he is too deliberative and slow to act.  I am not so sure that is a bad thing.  Some events require an immediate response, others, with so much at stake, require a more thought out response.  It is not too late to have a measured, coherent, international response to both of these threats.  Such things take time, often frustratingly so.  That said, time, tide and world events wait for no man.  We need to put forth a coherent and forceful strategy to deal with these threats to our stability.  And we need to be flexible enough to adjust the strategy as events unfold and respond to the actual situation.

I am sure that the professionals in the State and Defense Departments have thought this through.  Let’s get on with it.


Danger, Will Robinson!

It may be time to heed the warning of the robot in the 1960’s television show “Lost in Space” when it comes to Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech at the Kremlin yesterday concerning the annexation of Crimea.  (The Kremlin transcript of the speech may be found here.  If one takes him at his word, and I think we should, beware.)

It is past time to stop categorizing Putin’s pronouncements as nothing more than incredible Russian propaganda.  He is serious.  Yesterday he laid down a blue print for restoring Russia to what Putin believes is its rightful place in the world order.  I do not think he is bluffing and I do believe that he says what he means in this speech.  In it, he uses several historical references to bolster his claim that what Russia did in the Crimea was in keeping with previous precedent.  He is taking the long view  — a vision of Russia for the future — in the speech.  Clearly when he uses words like “plundered” in reference to the end of the cold war and the loss of Crimea to Ukraine and the departure from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)  (the immediate follow-on to the Soviet Union) of former Soviet republics, he is laying the groundwork for his case that Russia should reclaim its historical lands.  (Historical in the context of a Russian empire, not necessarily the context of the totality of history.)  He follows it up with claims that following the break up of the CIS, Russian citizens “went to bed in one country and awoke in different ones, overnight becoming ethnic minorities in former Union republics, while the Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders.”  Given his actions in Moldova, Georgia and now Ukraine, this statement should set off all kinds of alarm bells in Europe, the United States and indeed, the rest of the world. When he speaks of an “outrageous historical injustice” it is not rhetoric, it his view of the world.

He may not act in the next few weeks, or even in the next year, but clearly Putin has designs to restore the empire formerly known as the Soviet Union.  In my view it does not mean that he will literally do so, and it does not mean a return to communism in Russia (he and his pals are getting too rich off the current system to want to go back).  It does mean that he intends to restore what he sees as the glory of the Russian state and that he will not tolerate nations on Russia’s borders that do not bow in the direction of Moscow.  He doesn’t need to occupy as long as he can intimidate them and have them join his Eurasian Economic Union of former Soviet states vice join the European Union and move towards the west.  This is where Ukraine ran afoul of the Russian bear.

In his speech, Putin uses a very legalistic approach as he delineates why the Russians not only can act, but should act.  To me, this further defines that his speech is not meant as propaganda or even only to justify his actions in Crimea.  It means that further actions in the same context are justified.   Clearly, time and again in the speech, Putin makes clear that Russia has been wronged and that it is time to act to rectify the situation and to restore Russian greatness.  He refers to the policy of containment in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries by the west and sees it as the height of “hypocrisy.”  In so doing, he claims that “our western partners have crossed the line, playing the bear and acting irresponsibly and unprofessionally.”  Sound familiar?

A significant trigger to his actions is the growth of NATO.  This is considered a direct threat to the well-being of Russia.  Ukraine joining NATO (whether or not that was a realistic development) was probably the last straw in Putin’s view.  As he says; “For all the internal processes within the organisation, NATO remains a military alliance, and we are against having a military alliance making itself at home right in our backyard or in our historic territory. I simply cannot imagine that we would travel to Sevastopol to visit NATO sailors.”

Despite some of the domestic political rhetoric in the United States, it would not have mattered who was sitting in the Office of the President of the United States when the events in Ukraine unfolded.  Putin acted predictably when his chosen ally, deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych left the country and a pro-western interim government emerged.  The question is now what to do about it?

International diplomacy is a tough, slow endeavor.  This is especially true in a situation such as the annexation of Crimea where the average European or American citizen cannot really see what difference it makes to their lives.  So what?  Likewise, the west has been trying to give Putin “off ramps” and face-saving solutions to the problem.  Why?  Putin is now rubbing the results in our face — he is not interested in saving face because he feels that he has the upper hand.  It is the west, in his view, that needs to save face.

Coupled with this is the clear unlikelihood, barring an outright military invasion of Poland (sound familiar?) or other NATO nations, of US or NATO military action and Putin knows he is in the position of strength.  Just as after World War I, the US and Europe have expressed their war weariness following Iraq and Afghanistan and have expressly demonstrated no interest in engaging in another military action.  (See Syria:  Pundits blame President Obama for drawing a “red line” on Syria and not following through, but remember that it was the UK Parliament and the US Congress that refused to support it, among others.)

Make no mistake, I am not advocating military action to return Crimea to Ukraine, nor should any other direct military action now be on the table under the current set of events.  The steps taken to reassure our NATO allies with increased deployments of aircraft, although more symbolic than militarily effective, are sufficient for now as a military response.

Where we do have the upper hand is economically.  Russia’s economy is very weak and both the nation’s economy and the oligarchs surrounding Putin depend heavily on exports of gas and oil.  This is where significant efforts to convey to Putin that we take him seriously, and he should take us equally seriously, can be made.  Russia has threatened counter-sanctions should the west impose sanctions and follow-up on the rhetoric.  So be it.  Taking the long view, Russia will suffer far more than Europe or the United States.  The problem is that few people take the long view.  Short term comfort or profit seems to be more important.  It’s cold so we need natural gas.  We like the money the oligarchs have invested in the west, especially Germany and the UK.  (How many people know that the NBA Brooklyn Nets are owned by Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov?  I’m not saying he is necessarily a Putin crony, just that most people do not know how wide-spread the business interests of Russian billionaires — making their billions in the post-Soviet chaos of Russia in the 1990s — may be.)

Likewise, major US corporations are heavily invested in Russian markets and fear losing those investments if the US and Russia get into an economic tit-for-tat.  They have been lobbying heavily for minor actions to protest Russian movements without jeopardizing their stake in Russia today.

What is clear is that putting sanctions against seven relatively minor Russian officials and four former Ukrainian officials is not going to have any impact on Putin or his decisions.  (The European Union put travel bans and asset freezes on twenty-one people — still not even really a slap on the wrist.)

Additionally, US and European actions thus far have been reactive in nature.  Telling Putin “if you do this, then we may do something” is not going to deter him, especially when the actions we do take are more symbolic than practical.  We are in a period where miscalculation on either side can lead to long-term negative consequences.  Stop sending ambiguous messages and formulate specific meaningful actions.

Look, I am no former Cold Warrior looking to restore the good ol’ days of yesteryear.  Those days are gone — good riddance — and I don’t think that in this interconnected world that we will see those days again.  I do believe, however, that the world continues to be a dangerous place with dangerous people in it.  Taking Russian actions around the world in totality — support of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, support to Iran, granting temporary asylum to Edward Snowden, the nationalistic display at the Sochi Olympics, etc. etc. — means that the Russian bear must be taken seriously.  We cannot become grand foes once again, but we must have our own interests at heart and follow through on our commitments.  In my mind, we have yet to do so concerning Russia, Ukraine, and the impact on surrounding nations that we now call our friends.

Just as I think our inaction in Syria sends a signal to the world, inaction here will strengthen the misperception that the US is too tied up in domestic issues to get involved in world issues.  As a nation, it is time we put partisan politics aside, buckle our chin straps, and get into the game.

Danger, Will Robinson.  We cannot ignore it.  I am not an alarmist or war-monger, but I think we are coming up short on our understanding of Putin’s intentions.  We need to take the long view, put Putin’s actions in their historical context and work to keep his nationalistic adventurism in check.  Deterrence, not reaction is needed.  Serious economic sanctions are our best weapon.


Friday Thoughts

There are at least two big stories that continue to percolate along today and that have been going on for some time.  One is a mystery and one is an old story that I hope does not repeat itself.

A Modern Mystery

Like some mystery in a movie or an episode of “Lost” the search for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 continues with rampant speculation coming from every source, but with no resolution of the fate of the 239 people on board.  You have undoubtedly seen the news reports that lead one to believe that no one knows what happened to the Boeing 777 airliner — an aircraft with an exemplary safety record — and  thus no one is sure exactly where to look.

Several things come to mind.

  • The world is not as interconnected as everyone thinks.
  • It is not possible to survey every bit of the world at every moment watching for everything, unlike popular belief.  Satellites have to be focused on particular locations and tasked to look for particular events.
  • The ocean is vast and holds its secrets dear.  Those of us that have spent time at sea know that it is an unforgiving place and even a jet liner can get swallowed up.

None-the-less, it is amazing that after seven days no sign of it has appeared.  If it crashed into the jungle of Malaysia or elsewhere, it is not surprising that it has yet to be found.  The jungle can be as unforgiving as the ocean for those unprepared and without guidance.

The one thing that is clear is that the fun of speculating on what happened, ranging from the aircraft being lost at sea to being abducted by aliens, is not so humorous in comparison to the fate of those on board and the feelings of frustration and loss of those family and friends that need to know answers.

Get Ready Ukraine

The part of Ukraine that has been taken over by Russian sailors and troops — the Crimea — is scheduled to hold a referendum to vote on re-joining Russia (it became a part of Ukraine in 1954).  Incredibly, Russia continues to deny that Russian forces are deployed in Crimea and in fact, according to news reports earlier this week, Russian television continues to broadcast that armed gangs are roaming Kiev (the capital) killing pro-Russian sympathizers and that the U.S. 82nd Airborne has deployed to keep what they call the illegal regime in power in Kiev.  It would be funny if it wasn’t so serious.

Given his KGB background, Russian President Vladimir Putin is not above creating an “incident” in the eastern part of Ukraine as an excuse to move troops into that part of the country.  Indeed just today the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement, reiterating Putin’s earlier claim, that Russia is prepared to invade eastern Ukraine to protect “compatriots” and “fellow citizens.”  Yesterday protests in the eastern city of Donetsk left one protester dead, an incident specifically mentioned by the Russian Foreign Ministry in their statement.  Anti-Moscow protesters claim that the dead man was actually from their group.  The details will be unimportant for Putin, indeed there don’t need to be any actual details, for him to act.

It is unclear whether Russia will actually annex Crimea — in fact they don’t have to formally do so to have de facto control — although the Russian Duma or Parliament, has already passed a resolution allowing it.

Once the referendum is complete and the Crimean vote (fair or not) is for leaving Ukraine, stand by for the next round of events involving the rest of Ukraine.  Although Russian forces are currently holding “exercises” on the border with the rest of Ukraine, it is unclear whether Putin will decide to invade.  Only he knows for sure.  However, if I lived in Ukraine, I would expect and plan that he will do so sometime in the next few weeks following increased tensions and a series of incidents (probably manufactured, certainly presented as a major threat).

Why is this important to us?  This will be the first time in Europe since World War II that one country has annexed territory from another.  Following the events in Georgia in 2008 (where there was no contest but Putin learned that his troops were not as effective as they needed to be and thus embarked on a program to improve their training and equipment), events in Ukraine become part of a pattern.  Where will it stop if not here?  The impact of Russia annexing part or all of Ukraine will have profound effects on the rest of Europe, but most especially on those former Soviet republics that border Russia.

Initial efforts to impose political and economic consequences on Russia have been minimal.  The US is working to build an international consensus and that takes time, especially since many nations not directly on the Russian border are taking a wait and see approach to determine whether the annexation takes place and whether further Russian encroachment takes place.

The international community must take action now to make the risks apparent to Putin, in a meaningful way that keeps him in his box.  If the world does not deal with him now, it most certainly will have to deal with him later when the stakes are likely to be higher.


Ukraine — Putin Makes His Point

If you looked at the evening news or read a newspaper recently, you know that a popular uprising in Ukraine led to the creation of a new government there.  This was followed by Russian troops securing a portion of Ukraine traditionally thought of as “Russian” in Crimea, the province on the Black Sea that borders Russia.  Frankly, this latter development should be no surprise.  The question is whether or not Russian President Vladimir Putin will stop there or make further incursions into other parts of Ukraine.

Despite comments by Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and other elected Republicans placing the cause of the crisis at the feet of President Obama and his administration, there is little to nothing that the United States could have done to stop the events from unfolding.  (A tip of the hat to the Republican Senate leadership for trying to score domestic political points during a time of international crisis — true statesmen.  There is plenty of time after the situation is resolved to start calling names and investigating the political opposition.)  Vladimir Putin is an ex-KGB colonel with visions of empire dancing in his head.  If Ukraine succeeded in rejecting ties to Russia and moved into a close relationship with Europe and the West, his own vision of a great and powerful resurgent Russia would be in grave jeopardy.  No matter what the United States or any other nation did or said, Putin would have acted no differently.

If one wants to point fingers at what we have done or failed to do, a more apt comparison would be the Russian war with Georgia in August of 2008.  As was claimed over the last few days in Crimea, Russian forces drove the Georgian military out of South Ossetia in order to protect Russian citizens living there.  The area is still occupied by Russian forces.  The international community protested, but took no real steps to deter Russia from acting.  The Russians, especially under Putin, will act wherever they feel like it in the geographic areas with historical ties to their country and where “Russians” are living.  Remember that in the glory days of  the Soviet Union, entire populations were moved out of their native lands and Russians were re-settled there.  This is the case in Crimea where the native Tatar population was under constant threat of elimination starting in the 1800s.  After decades of discrimination including massacres and forced starvation, in 1944 Stalin shipped the remaining Tatars out of  Crimea.   The point is that Russia feels that it can act with impunity in its own backyard and has a long history of doing so.

So the question remains as to what can or should be done.  The options are wide-ranging but probably depend most on whether Putin stops with the invasion of Crimea or if in the next few days, he moves into other areas in Ukraine.  While international action is likely even if Putin stays out of the rest of Ukraine, it will probably be of a token nature and certainly, in Putin’s calculation, worth the cost.  Should he move into eastern Ukraine, the situation could become grave as the international community will almost certainly put significant pressure on Russia, especially economic sanctions, which will then cause Russia to implement its own sanctions and actions to put pressure on Europe, especially through the disruption of oil and natural gas exports to Europe.

There are many unknowns.  Drawing upon his KGB days, I have no doubt that Putin is willing to create an “incident” in eastern Ukraine that gives him an excuse to send troops to protect the Russian speaking citizens living there.  So far, the new Ukrainian government and their military have shown remarkable restraint in not confronting the Russians in Crimea or elsewhere, thus robbing Putin of his excuse, despite his bizarre press conference yesterday where he claimed no Russian troops were in Crimea and that the situation was one of extreme lawlessness and violence with hundreds of thousands of refugees pouring across the border.  (It is hard to know how he can make such claims in a press conference while keeping from bursting out laughing.  He must also know that there are hundreds of western journalists in the area loudly telling a different story.  He doesn’t care — he is playing to a different audience — and he is also putting the international community on notice that he will say or do whatever it takes to get his way.)

Given the emotion on both sides and the numbers of people moving about the country with weapons at their disposal, it is difficult to believe that peace will continue to prevail.  Should widespread violence break out it will get very ugly very fast.  To prevent that, it is imperative that diplomatic efforts succeed in getting impartial international observers on the ground.  So far several nations have offered their services and Ukraine is willing to allow them in, but Russia has not agreed to do so in the Crimea and also questions their veracity should they deploy to other parts of Ukraine.  Putin is in no hurry to resolve the situation.

So despite the armchair quarterbacks and those trying to score political points on the American domestic front, Putin would have done what he did no matter who was our president.  It merely adds to his image of self-aggrandizement and self-importance that he can disrupt US foreign policy by refusing to play along be it in Syria, Iran or Ukraine.  His sole goal is to restore what he thinks is Russia’s rightful place in the world as a major power.  Meddling in Ukraine is his way of making that point.  I hope that the international community, with the United States out front, comes up with concrete actions that check Putin’s power grab and puts him back in his place.  He needs to be disabused of the notion that he has any real power.

Regardless, the next few days will be interesting and if I was a Ukrainian I would be worried.