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Ukraine: Time for Europeans To Take Over Europe’s Defense


Ukraine Protest
Had the U.S. been so foolish as to bring Ukraine into NATO Washington would have a treaty responsibility to start World War III.  Today’s game of geopolitical chicken might have a nuclear end.

Still, the West cannot easily ignore Russia’s Crimean takeover.  It was an act of aggression against Kiev, yet a majority of Crimean residents may welcome the move.  Although secessionist sentiment has been largely dormant of late, the Western-supported putsch/street revolution against President Viktor Yanukovich inflamed pro-Russian passions in eastern Ukraine. 

Of course, Moscow intervened for its own ends, rather than to affirm minority rights.  Nevertheless, why shouldn’t Crimeans join Russia if they desire?  Yet Russia’s now dominant role in Crimea raises serious doubts about the fairness of the March 16 referendum. 

Putin is wrong, dangerously wrong.  But how to punish Moscow?  America’s direct stake in the controversy is essentially nil.  

Putin is a garden-variety authoritarian, not another Adolf Hitler.  The former’s ambitions are focused on border security and international respect, not global conquest and ideological domination.  Moreover, Russia—with a weak economy dependent on energy revenues and badly managed military in desperate need of reform—is no Nazi Germany. 

Since whatever happens between Russia and Ukraine poses little threat to Americans, military retaliation is inconceivable.  Risking conflict with a nuclear-armed power is not for the faint-hearted. 

Yet the administration added fighter patrols in Europe and others have proposed sending the Sixth Fleet into the Black Sea.  However, absent plans to strafe Russian villages and seize Sevastopol, what’s the point? 

Former White House aides Stephen J. Hadley and Damon Wilson advocated “deploying and exercising NATO forces in Poland, the Baltic states, and Romania.”  That would only reinforce Moscow’s determination to prevent Ukraine from becoming a similar advance base for the U.S. military.

John Bolton suggested putting “both Georgia and Ukraine on a clear path to NATO membership.”  Yet alliances are supposed to increase America’s security, not increase the likelihood of confrontation and war.

The Europeans don’t have much of a military option because they don’t have much of a military. Despite constant exhortations from Washington to do more, almost all European states are cutting back.

Which leaves economic and diplomatic sanctions for both America and Europe.  Alas, many measures would have but minimal impact on Moscow: imposing individual visa bans and asset freezes, expelling Moscow from the G-8, embargoing arms, and terminating economic negotiations and military cooperation aren’t likely to make Putin flinch. 

More serious would be sanctioning Russian banks, restricting energy sales, and embargoing trade. However, enthusiasm in Europe for acting drops the farther one moves from Russia. 

Moscow also could retaliate by freezing the assets of Western businesses.  Moreover, Russia could damage significant allied interests elsewhere, impeding logistical support for Afghanistan and buttressing Iran in negotiations over its nuclear program, for instance. 

The best answer for the Crimean crisis would be a negotiated climb-down, where Russia pulls back its forces, Kiev addresses those disenfranchised by Yanukovich’s ouster, Crimea delays its referendum, Ukraine accepts a secession vote, Europe respects the result, Washington stops meddling in Kiev’s politics, and everyone disavows any intention of bringing Ukraine into NATO. 

If Moscow forges ahead anyway, the allies should play a long game—employ limited economic sanctions to maximize pain for business elites and sustained diplomatic pressure to intensify isolation for political elites, while avoiding a new cold war.  However, the U.S. should act only in cooperation with Europe, since there is no gain to unilaterally penalizing American business. 

Finally, over the longer-term, Washington should force Europe to take over responsibility for its own defense.  Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel complained that European military outlays were “not sustainable.”  But the Europeans have little reason to do more as long as America guarantees their security.

Indeed, in early March the administration undertook what Secretary of State John Kerry termed “concrete steps to reassure our NATO allies.”  Actually, Washington should adopt the opposite strategy.  America’s friends should understand that if they are not willing to defend themselves, no one else will do so. 

At the same time, Washington should rethink nonproliferation policy.  It’s too late for Ukraine, but Kiev gave up Soviet nuclear weapons left on its soil in return for paper border guarantees.  Possession of even a handful of nuclear-tipped missiles would have changed Moscow’s risk calculations. 

Whatever the resolution of the immediate crisis, the Obama administration should use Russia’s Crimean gambit to end Europe’s dependent military relationship.  That would offer at least one silver lining to yet another potential conflict without end.

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Crimeans have been able to join Russia all along. All they had to do was move into Russia, but the spot of land they are now living on belongs to Ukrine and it isn't right for Russia to just take it.

Russian intervention in Ukraine

The way things are going in the USA under Obama, I think that it is just a matter of time before we will be facing the same plight as the citizens living in the Ukraine.

Underestimating Putin

I believe that Mr. Bandow is underestimating Putin and his intentions. If he is just a garden-variety authoritarian, why is he so involved in Iran and Syria, and why are Russian naval vessels visiting Cuba? Looks like global projection to me. As long as Putin perceives the U.S. as the paper tiger that it is, he will continue to try to recreate the old Soviet Union by force if not influence. Maybe the perception of Putin will change when he decides to annex Alaska. After all, it was once part of Russia, there are likely some ethnic Russians in Alaska, it is closer to Russia geographically than to the remainder of the U.S. mainland, and Russia got a lousy deal from Seward.