We’re now weeks into the standoff between Russia and the Ukraine, and the situation is still balanced precariously between a diplomatic solution and outright war. The annexation of the Crimea is complete, 40,000 Russian troops are massed along Ukraine’s eastern border, and Russian fighter jets are buzzing the lone U.S. warship in the Black Sea. Limited sanctions have been slapped on Russia to no avail. What can be done to resolve this tense situation?
Oh there are of course actions that could be taken to discourage Putin from any further adventuring in the Ukraine, but the West lacks the political will to take those steps. One destroyer in the Black Sea will not deter Putin, nor will five fighter jets in the Baltic States; all those amount to are token shows of the flag. Widespread sanctions will not deter Putin; he could care less and all he has to do is seek closer economic ties with China to get out from under the West’s sanctions. Even the Ukraine cannot deter Putin, as we saw this week when a Ukrainian army unit meekly surrendered to unarmed civilians. No, Putin has a free hand open to him in the Ukraine and he knows it.
Ukraine has been an important part of Russian defensive strategy for over two hundred years, and during the days of the Russian Empire it was Russia’s frontline against any moves by the faltering Ottoman Empire. Ukraine gained its independence briefly after the Russian revolution that swept the Communists into power, but lost it again shortly after the end of the Russian civil war. Stalin persecuted the Ukraine mercilessly during the early 1930s and starved millions of Ukrainians to death in retribution for Ukrainian agitation for independence. During the long years of the Cold War the Ukraine was strategically important as a prop for the Eastern Bloc, and once the Ukraine regained its independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union it was a loss keenly felt in Moscow. Putin would dearly love to regain control over the Ukraine as a bulwark of Russia’s defenses against the EU and NATO, both of which have welcomed former Eastern Bloc nations like Poland, the Baltic States and Romania into their ranks.
In the current crisis we have ethnic Russians in the eastern Ukraine calling for Moscow’s intervention, and I don’t doubt that Russian intelligence and special forces troops are active in the eastern Ukraine fomenting the unrest. Kiev’s hands are pretty much tied in the matter since the Ukrainian army is so ineffective, and since Putin has threatened to invade if Kiev cracks down on the ethnic Russians in the east. It’s the same old argument and reasoning that Adolf Hitler used in 1938 to absorb much of Czechoslovakia – military intervention is necessary to protect the Russians living in eastern Ukraine. Putin sees this as his golden opportunity to regain a part of what was lost, and the Crimea was just the opener and the test of the West’s resolve to protect the Ukraine against Russian aggression. That resolve has been shown to be sadly lacking.
The only deterrence that would induce Putin to keep his well-trained and effective army behind Russian borders is strength, and the West currently lacks that strength. The EU is still in the long process of getting its collective feet under it and is incapable of taking unified action against Russian aggression; any EU military action in 20 years has consisted of actions taken by its member states such as Germany, and none of those states is strong enough to pose a credible threat to Russian ambitions. Only America has the potential strength to deter Putin from taking further actions, and from the White House down we are proving to be weak. Caesar Barack Hussein Obama can bluster and threaten all he wants to but Putin knows that Obama lacks the resolve to stand toe to toe with Russia and not blink. Our showing of American military force in Eastern Europe has only been token to say the least. While this crisis continues for week after week the talk from the White House and the Defense Secretary is that we need to further reduce our forces to levels even lower than Bill Clinton did. (Ever wonder why so many Reserve and National Guard units had to serve full-time in Iraq and Afghanistan? It’s due strictly to the deep cuts to our military enacted under President Clinton when the world was still agog that the Soviet Union had fallen apart.) Why, we are even pulling the last of our armored divisions out of Europe for the first time since WWII!
So the Ukraine is effectively on its own. Only direct military intervention could prevent the Russians from doing whatever they like in Ukraine, and I don’t see that intervention coming. The government in Kiev has asked the UN to send peacekeepers into the eastern Ukraine in an attempt to quell the unrest and discourage Russia from invading, but will those peacekeepers ever arrive? It’s doubtful since that move would need the approval of the UN Security Council, where Russia has veto power. So even the UN may not be able to help. Russia can seize eastern Ukraine anytime it wants to and Putin knows it.
So Vladimir Putin’s Ukrainian gamble will pay off and he will get his way. It’s a sad time for the Ukraine and all Ukrainians everywhere.