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March 03, 2014

Thoughts On Ukraine

Itís hard to keep up with fast moving events (like this) so I thought Iíd run through some of the bigger picture items.

I know itís popular on the right (and even among some liberals) to say that Obamaís weakness, as evidenced by his failure to follow through on Syria, emboldened Putin but I donít buy it.

Recall that in 2008 Vladimir Putin undertook a similar operation in the South Ossetia region of Georgia. Was George W. Bush viewed as weak and vacillating by Putin? Had Bush appeared to the world as week and unwilling to use military force in a crisis?

If Bushís decisive, unilateral, cowboy persona didn't lead Putin to lay low, why should we assume that launching a few cruise missiles (remember "just muscular enough not to get mocked"?), would have been a decisive factor in Putinís Ukraine calculations?

Would a President Romney have made a difference? Again, I doubt it. While Romney has been vindicated for his view of Russia (and Obama again to be shown to be naÔve) itís hard to believe Romneyís presence in the White House would have altered Russiaís view of its interests in Ukraine. These interest are what ultimately drive Russiaís actions.

A few things to consider:

Ukraine is a major trading partner of Russia.

It was to be a cornerstone in Putinís customs union which was/is to be an alternative trading bloc to the EU. When Ukraine flirted with joining the EU and wrecking the Russian plan things began to escalate.

Many of Russiaís gas pipelines, carrying the source of Russiaís wealth, run through Ukraine.

Russia has been fanatical about access to a warm water port since Peter the Great. Do you really think they were going to risk losing access to their outlet to the Black Sea and from there the Mediterranean?

In general, the Russians have spent the last 20 or so years watching areas that they think are rightly part of their sphere of influence aligning more and more with the west. Now the largest, most important, and historically closest part of the former empire is wrecking your economic dreams and throwing in with their opponents, the Russians were going to simply shrug because Obama threw some missiles at Syria or Mitt Romney was in the White House? Thatís fanciful at best.

Putin made a very simple and accurate calculationÖno US President or European leader was going to go to war over Ukraine.

International relations are much simpler than people want to make them out to be. Countries have interests and goals. If you want to oppose them and stop them from perusing a particular goal, you either have to offer them something of greater value or make the cost of doing it prohibitive.

When you look at the Russian interests in Ukraine (and Putinís domestic standing), thereís almost nothing the west has to offer thatís more valuable than a friendly and pliant Ukraine. That leaves making the cost too high.

Sure you could exact some toll on Russian oligarchs by going after their money in Europe but it seems likely Putin has a better handle on what that would mean to them and their support for him than most people in Europe or the US.

Aside from the financial penalties and possible sanctions, you are left with using military force to stop Putinís military moves. Again, no American President, past, present or future is going to go to war with Russia over a non-aligned, non-treaty obligation nation right next to Russia.

Too many administration officials steeped in the ways of forging policy conferences, college coffeehouses and faculty lounges. They may think that military action is anachronistic in the 21st century and that because ďspheres of interestsĒ are frowned upon in 600 level IR classes at Harvard real policy makers agree. As we see from Iran, China and Russia both of those concepts are alive and well. We cannot wish them away or think what motivates us is shared universally.

Whether we like it or not, Russia sees itself as having real and important interests in Ukraine. That they protect them in ways that we donít like doesnít factor into the conversation.

So assuming that Putin succeeds in Crimea and in either taking over the rest of Ukraine or installing leadership friendlier to his vision (and he will because he has real interests at stake, while while we have nebulous concepts to defend), whatís next? Letís not kid ourselves about Putin and his project. He wants to pull back as much of the non-NATO aligned old Soviet Empire as possible. And heís going to be successful for the most part because we in the west donít really care.

But there are limits to how far he can push us and we need to make it clear to him what they areÖNATO aligned countries like the Baltic nations, Poland and The Czech Republic.

I donít think Putin is crazy enough to try and pull the Baltics back inside a reconstituted Russian empire or have enough to offer to lure former Warsaw Pact nations into his customs union. We need to make it clear to him treaty obligation nations are a wholly different matter. This is a lesson that we need to make sure China observes and understands regarding Japan.

Unlike the immediate post-World War II era, this ďredlineĒ canít come just from Obama or any American President. European nations have to end their long decline in military spending. The Europeans got a discounted ride after WWII because they needed to rebuild and we wanted to make sure to check the Soviets (we also didn't mind paying an out-sized share because it initially gave us out-sized influence).

That arrangement canít be the same going forward. Our European friends canít continue to do lucrative business with the Russians while looking to us to foot the bill and play the bad guy. They have the most to lose and need to act accordingly.

Maintaining a credible deterrent to an expansionist regime like Putin's doesn't mean we have to answer the bell in every conflict from Syria to Ukraine. We do need to credibly identify our core interests and make it clear that we will defend them.

To borrow a phrase, if everything is defined as a national security interest, then nothing is. What makes us look like paper tigers is talking big about everything, even in areas we know we won't do anything if push comes to shove. We will be far better served being honest about what we will fight to defend and following through in those cases. That may leave a lot of people out in the cold and at the mercy of some nasty actors but that's the story of humanity.

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posted by DrewM. at 09:56 AM

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