The Russian invasion of Crimea is causing a fluster of opinions around the world about the ultimate goal for Russian President Vladimir Putin. The invasion into Ukraine’s territory is Moscow’s response to the recent popular ouster of the pro-Kremlin Ukrainian president. Mr Putin has also moved to place Ukraine under economic pressure. Russian energy firm Gazprom, the region's largest supplier of natural gas, cancelled its discount to Ukraine beginning April 1.
Ukraine is already heavily in debt to Gazprom and a failure to pay for February's gas deliveries would see its arrears increase to $2 billion. The United States has shown support for the interim Ukraine government, pledging to give Ukraine US$1 billion in assistance parallel to an international aid package coordinated by the International Monetary Fund, US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said March 4. The United States is committed to supporting Ukraine as it restores financial stability if its government implements necessary reforms, Lew said.
On the same day, the US Department of Defense announced that the United States has suspended all military engagements with Russia, Reuters reported March 4. In addition to military exercises and port visits, the United States will look at a series of economic and diplomatic sanctions to isolate Moscow because of its intervention in Ukraine.
Trade and investment talks with Russia have also been put on hold. Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby called upon Russia to withdraw its forces from Crimea. As if in response to the US decision, Russia rolled out a test of its new mobile RS-12M Topol intercontinental ballistic missile March 4 (known as the SS-25 Sickle in NATO parlance) and hit a target in Kazakhstan, a Russian Defence Ministry spokesman said, Interfax reported.
As the missile test and energy tightening show, Moscow cares very little about any US or NATO military threats to expel Russian forces from Crimea. What’s interesting in this entire Crimea debacle is the immediate outcry that the US use their own military force to push Russia out of Crimea. This is a patently ridiculous suggestion, deeply irresponsible, and blind to the geopolitical realities which led to the current flare-up.
First, we’re told by political elites all over the globe that the US is too “heavy handed” and “imperial” in its dealings around the world. And it’s because of their forceful foreign policy that they invite countries like Russia to stand up to the world’s only superpower and do things like what’s happening in Crimea.
But then we’re supposed to castigate the US for not being heavy handed enough when it encourages the very thing that people say the US should be stopping with all their military power. You can’t really have it both ways. One would suspect that if the US were to intervene in Crimea, there would be international horror at the American "imperialism". While there is sometimes a good case for humanitarian intervention and protection of sovereign territories, this kind of double-think - or heads I win, tails you lose - kind of stance, makes rational decision-making very difficult. And it ignores the nuances of geopolitics.
Aside from the admittedly poor foreign policy decisions which could certainly have encouraged Russia to conduct this invasion, to an extent, US President Barack Obama is actually acting rather prudently in his response to the Russian invasion. He should not be doing anything about it, and he’s not. Mr Obama should be sitting on his hands, militarily speaking, and he is.
Sure, the US has dispatched an aircraft carrier group through the Mediterranean and sent Secretary of States John Kerry to Kiev, but Mr Obama is simply not willing to take this any further. And inaction, while it stirs the fires of ridicule in Washington, is the US President’s best move right now. Mr Obama must show Mr Putin and the world that Russia is not a peer nation, and the only way of achieving that is to ignore all his movements in Crimea and treat Russia like the regional power it is.
If Mr Obama reacts by sending US troops, he’s only going to play right into Mr Putin’s game of tricking the world into thinking Russia is stronger than it really is. Mr Obama knows Russia will not become a global power in the next decade (indeed, it’s unlikely Russia will ever return to such a commanding position).
Instead Russia will become a significant regional power, and Mr Obama is comfortable with that reality. So long as Moscow doesn’t try to overextend its reach, the US can use its covert and political resources to make it difficult for Russia to gain truly global power, but it can’t really do anything about it forcefully. This appears to be the US strategy, and it is a good one, even if it worries US allies elsewhere.
It also pays to remember this is all happening in Russia’s backyard, so it’s much easier for Putin to do something about his strategic position than it is for the NATO powers to act. The Russian Black Sea Fleet is stationed in Crimea, at Sevastopol, which makes it Russia’s only warm-water port. Losing this would be a huge blow for Russia.
But it was never clear this port was actually under any threat when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s government collapsed last month. In fact, during the Orange Revolution a few years ago, when the existing pro-Russian government fell to a pro-West political movement and was a much more serious strategic threat to Moscow that today’s debacle, the port was never under threat at this time either.
Mr Putin’s game is deeper than just a port. He wants political theatre. He wants a show. And above all, he wants a reaction from the West. Not a military response – that would be crippling for both sides and everyone in between. The reaction he wants is a clear, unambiguous display from the US and NATO about just how far they are willing to go to protect their allies in Europe and elsewhere. Mr Putin expects Mr Obama to shrug his shoulders and look away. The Russian president knows that if he can get this reaction, he can turn it around on the entire Former Soviet Union and say, “See? The US gives you these promises, but how safe do you really feel?”
At this point in the thread of recent events, it appears Mr Putin will get what he’s looking for. But the US is not going to lose the propaganda war to Russia so easily. It would be very surprising if the US does not have an answer to Russia's Crimea gambit. The next few weeks will be important to watch for an American’s counter-move. This has all happened before just a few years ago and the US has learned their lessons.
Back then, in Georgia mid 2008, a Russian invasion was conducted under very different, but remarkably parallel, circumstances. It’s hard to believe the US didn’t know about the build up of Russian troops on the Georgian border before it encouraged Tbilisi to attack South Ossetia. The Russians had been preparing to attack Georgia for months and they struck in August of that year.
They had set a trap, hoping the Georgians would move on South Ossetia. The Americans could certainly see this with technical intelligence, and yet still Washington suggested Tbilisi take the region. Either the gathered intelligence was extraordinarily poorly analysed, or everyone underestimated both the Russian military and Russia's resolve to use it. The story is much the same this time around too; at least to the extent that everyone underestimates the Russian nerve and capability.
Russia is trying to ignite another Cold War to some extent. But it will be a Cold War it can win this time around. The Europeans don’t have any interest in replaying that game, and the US are looking away from Eurasia and really don’t care what happens to a large extent. A few of America’s allies (think Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria) will be more than a little worried with US inaction in Crimea. After all, they want the assurance that if Russia tries the same thing with them, that the US will back them up, no questions asked.
That’s why they've been pushing so strongly for a US ballistic missile defence shield in their countries over the past decade. A missile shield would position significant US forces on their soil and give them the peace of mind of protection from a creeping Russian hegemony. Then again, seeing how easy it was for Russia to occupy Crimea this month - without so much as a US missile waiting to defend the region - they must be feeling extremely anxious.
But then Russia isn’t stupid. They’re not looking to take anything else by force in Eastern Europe, or anywhere for that matter. If Kiev decides to mobilise troops to retake Crimea (and they’re not going to) it would be very surprising if the troops respond to the interim government’s orders. There have already been a number of high-level defections with generals saying they’d immediately look to Moscow in the event of a shooting war.
And quite aside from if they’d fight is the question of can Ukraine’s troops fight. While Ukraine’s military is well-trained, they don’t have the funds or the equipment to prosecute a prolonged war with even a peer nation. So standing up to a military like Russia’s would be suicide. The Russian military is not the 1991-era depleted and demoralised skeleton any longer. With the testing of the ballistic missile this morning, Moscow is showing the world and Kiev that whatever happens, they’re willing to take this the whole way.
Ultimately though, they won’t need to, and that’s the interesting thing in all this. Because neither NATO nor the Visegrad group have the stomach or the force structure to intervene on the level necessary to convince Russia to pull out or force Mr Putin to back down. It takes months to build up sufficient assets for a full-spectrum war, and not even the United States has the available materiel to do this even if they were preparing for it.
Mr Putin doesn’t want to start a shooting war. He has Central Europe and Eastern Europe all tied up economically, with billions of barrels of oil and natural gas purchased from Russia each year. This is also why the sanctions being threatened by the UN and the EU will be pathetically weak if they pass. The economic reality and dependency on existing energy networks will make whoever signs the sanctions few and far between - and temporary. It simply goes against all of the EU member’s national interests to pressure Russian energy deliveries.
On top of this, there are plenty of people in both Eastern Europe and Central Europe who would actually like to see Russia return to some of its past prestige. Germany is the interesting country in that estimate. It would not be surprising if Angela Merkel looks at Russia’s moves in Crimea as a signal to press forward with backdoor diplomacy to strengthen their growing relationship. An understanding between Russia and Germany would serve both countries’ interests, especially regarding energy. Of course, this reality bothers Poland immensely.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. The US can take some steps to pressure Russia, although by no means is the below an exhaustive list of options. It could keep Senator John Kerry in Ukraine for the medium term to establish a diplomatic fast-line. It could eject Russia from the G8 meetings which would hurt Moscow’s prestige internationally. The US could also assist Ukraine in setting up alternative energy sources in the event Russia ceases their deliveries, although this would take time.
It could use the arriving aircraft carrier group to conduct a show of force, convincing the Russian Black Fleet to shift position rather than confront the carrier group directly, thereby undermining the Russian military position in Crimea. It could publically expose Russian plans gleaned from intelligence to embarrass Moscow. And finally, it could increase intelligence and military support to Kiev and plan for the eventuality of what would happen if Ukraine confronts Russia militarily in Crimea and loses.
With all this said, the US is certainly losing important military credibility in an increasingly unstable world. This is not escaping the notice of the Obama administration. Mr Obama is purposefully trying to detach America from heavy involvement in the world’s problems, so losing some credibility was always going to be a by-product of this approach.
What the US need to ensure against is the death-by-a-thousand-cuts result. Small movements in the Russian periphery might seem manageable now, but there will be a point where they become a problem too big to counter easily. At this stage, the US will wish it had acted sooner and more forcefully. Nevertheless, Mr Obama and Mr Putin both have plans to use the Crimea invasion to their interests. The game is far from over.