National Review on March 14, 2014, published an article by John Lenczowski on what should the United States do — in a way that avoids war — in response to the Russian invasion of Crimea? It is a legitimate and vital question. But it is like asking what do you do now that you have been dealt the worst hand of cards possible whereas, in earlier rounds, the hands you were dealt were much more favorable. Whenever I hear this question, I ask myself: Why should our nation’s leaders only now be thinking seriously about Ukraine, when they should have been thinking about it seriously for a very long time? Excerpts below:

We have long known about the Russians’ strategic intentions in Ukraine and in the other countries they call the “near abroad.” Their national-security doctrine argues that Moscow has the “right” to intervene militarily to protect “Russian-speaking people” wherever they live in neighboring countries. This doctrine, which is completely contrary to international law, was officially ensconced in Russian policy all the way back in the first two years of post-Soviet Russia.

For two decades, we have witnessed Russian meddling in the internal affairs of the former captive nations that are now independent, sovereign states. This includes: pervasive intelligence penetration; the buying up of local companies by corporations controlled by the FSB (Federal Security Service) or the Russian mafia; the use of energy blackmail; the financial and other support of political factions and individual leaders within these various nations; and the continuation of Russia’s divide-and-conquer policy. This policy entails pitting one ethnic or religious group against another — and even inciting pogroms by one ethnic group against another. Examples included pitting Azeris against Armenians, Meskhet Turks against Uzbeks, Abkhazians and South Ossetians against Georgians, Gagauz and Russians against Moldovans, Russians against Estonians, Lithuanians against Poles, and now Russians against Ukrainians and Poles against Ukrainians.

Russia has also sought to cast the shadow of its power over Eastern/Central Europe, mainly through pervasive intelligence and commercial penetration. In addition, there have been increasing questions over the past two years about whether the Polish presidential aircraft that crashed in Smolensk, Russia, in 2010 had been sabotaged.

In the face of all this, the United States has been silent.

In 2011, we signed the so-called New START treaty, an arms-control agreement that serves no serious U.S. strategic interest.

In 2009, we abandoned the deployment of missiles and radars for an ABM system in Poland and the Czech Republic, and we did so in such an undiplomatic fashion, without consulting and reassuring these NATO allies, that it was a transparent slap in the face.

…the larger issue is: Shouldn’t we have been more sober about Russia’s strategic purposes, particularly in Ukraine, which is geostrategically the greatest prize for a policy of Russian revanchism? Shouldn’t we have been more serious in our reaction to Russian aggression in Georgia? Shouldn’t we have realized that the Russian salami tactics were likely to have grievously destabilizing effects in the region?

In the larger scheme of things, China is objectively Russia’s greatest geostrategic threat. [my emphasis]. Over time, increasing numbers of Chinese have sought employment in Siberia. As some commentators have observed, the day may come when China might wish to intervene to defend its countrymen living in adjacent Siberian territories.

Now that we have been dealt a very bad hand of cards, how much has our own leadership exacerbated this situation?

The Obama administration’s “red lines” and threats are seen by our enemies as bluffs.

The ayatollahs had contempt for Jimmy Carter and held our hostages for 444 days. They had respect for Ronald Reagan, who, before he ever became president, demonstrated the moral/political strength necessary to earn that respect. The ayatollahs did not want to mess with Ronald Reagan, and they released the hostages on his inauguration day.

Putin sees Barack Obama the way the ayatollahs saw Jimmy Carter. And this makes the world a much more dangerous place, because if President Obama wants to build serious credibility, he may be tempted to take actions that are more risky than a Ronald Reagan would need to take.

So what is to be done?

Ultimately, our policy must be shaped by what is in our vital national interest. That interest entails:

(1) Ensuring that all the countries of Europe remain at peace and well behaved toward one another. If Europe is at peace, economic development and international trade are maximized, not only to the Europeans’ benefit, but to ours as well.

The reason for the expansion of NATO was precisely this, and it has been a wildly successful investment on our part.

(2) Ensuring that Russia channel its energies into constructive policies promoting internal economic development and security from genuine threats, and not into destabilizing policies designed to restore the former Soviet political space. Such revanchist policies can only provoke continual local resistance to Moscow’s rule of the kind that it has encountered in Chechnya, which has attracted jihadists from throughout the world, to the ultimate detriment not only of Russia but of the West. The possibility that jihadists will descend upon Crimea to defend the Muslim Tartars there cannot be excluded.

Russia has long had a strategic culture that carefully measures the “correlation of forces” — the relative strengths and weaknesses of the parties to any conflict. It is highly sensitive to signals not only of material strength but also of moral/political/ideological strength. To secure our vital interests, our most important priority is to start sending signals of strength to the world, in contrast to the cascade of signals of weakness that this administration has sent.

First of all, this requires reversing the debilitating cuts in our defense spending. It means shoring up our allies, particularly those close to the Russian border and especially the Baltic states, Poland, and Romania. This means supplying them with more advanced weapons, especially missile defenses.

There are all sorts of economic sanctions that deserve the most serious consideration. As many have commented, among the most important are moves that would deprive Russia of its ability to conduct energy blackmail against Ukraine and many of our NATO allies. An active policy — in contrast to the administration’s passivity, if not obstruction — of seeking U.S. energy independence is long overdue.

One thing that no one is talking about, but that needs to be implemented urgently, is a broad-scale informational campaign to counter Moscow’s extraordinary propaganda and perception-management efforts. Such a campaign would put Putin on the political defensive by exposing the ongoing record of Russian violations of the sovereignty of its neighbors, Russian violations of its solemn international obligations, and Russian criminality that extends from Moscow’s suppression of independent media to the assassination of its political enemies in foreign capitals. Putin charges that the new government in Ukraine is illegitimate. The irony is that Putin’s election was so laden with corruption and manipulation that his own legitimacy is subject to even more question. [My emphasis]

An issue could be made of Russia’s possession of the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad, which was never Russian territory and which never should have remained part of Russia after the collapse of the USSR. Russian rule over non-Russian lands such as those in the Caucasus can be raised before the U.N. Special Committee on Decolonization.

Another issue is the fact that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine constitutes a violation of the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. In this agreement, signed in 1994, Russia pledged to respect the sovereignty of Ukraine within its current borders. In return, Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons.

The protection of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine is a matter with serious geostrategic implications. If Russia is able to get away with the annexation of part or all of Ukraine, what will stop it from annexing Moldova? What will stop it from reabsorbing Armenia? Or, for that matter, taking over the rest of Georgia?

A serious case can be made that the West should supply sophisticated arms and intelligence to the new Ukrainian government.

A wise policy of diplomatic action that can give the Russians a face-saving exit from Crimea should be the first order of business. But such diplomacy will be surely a failure unless Putin and his gang encounter serious disincentives against the continuation of their current aggression.

— John Lenczowski is founder, president, and a professor at The Institute of World Politics. He formerly served as President Reagan’s principal adviser on Soviet affairs in the National Security Council


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