There has been too much posturing by both sides in Russian aggression and Western reactions to the Crimea and Ukraine crises with too little examination of the full dimension of the events so far and possibility of conflict on both sides.
The proof in the pudding will be seen this week when President Obama goes to Europe for a meeting of both the G-7 and NATO. At the same time, the EU will be working on a set of additional sanctions against Russia. But at this moment, much is uncertain both regarding Putin’s real aims and strategy as well as what the West can do to prevent further depredation against the nations of the old Warsaw Pact who now are free from the bear’s embrace.
Given all this what is at risk? What can be done and at what cost? The cost likely will be paid for inaction as well as any ineffective action.
Where are we now in a fast evolving situation?
First, Putin has built for himself a “bridge too far” already. He has lost much. His stock market tanked, the Ruble is being punished, and investors are already scared for their Russian investments. He has alienated much of Europe by frightening its citizens and leaders and forcing them to face the harsh reality of needing to make their security in many sectors more resilient and less dependent on Russian energy. A possible route is to seek to revitalize NATO and EU unity and determination.
Russia is a strong power in military terms, a dominant one in its region. But Putin presides over a fundamentally weak, crumbing society and economy. He commands support at home but at the cost of a brutal authoritarian regime where much of his people are in poverty, especially outside the cities.
His strength is in leveraging his energy exports, and in reality, it is also one of his most serious weaknesses. Russia is highly dependent on the income from selling gas and oil to Europe. This could be jeopardized if Europe manages to get its act together by collaborating with others to lessen its dependence on Russia. Further, if the West and the larger international community can get its financial and energy acts together in support of the Ukraine quickly enough, Putin would lose what he could have gained by sweet honey rather than brute force.
One problem is that there is a likelihood that Vladimir Putin is truly power mad and certainly myopic in his assessment of both his own capability, invincibility, and ultimately, of consequences to him and his nation. He is playing with fire without any sign that he knows it. Caution seems not in his genes, and so far, the West’s weak reaction has only embolden him to threaten all of Ukraine. The irony is that Putin’s success could also be his undoing. It could surely steel every affected nation and most of the world against Russia as a potential enemy and rogue state.
Second, on the part of the West the greatest danger may not be Russia, but rather the disunity of the West. It is crippled by its inherent search for profits and the greed under pressure of banks and investment companies that make money on Russian trade, not unlike our continued steel shipments to Japan just before Pearl Harbor.
Again, it would be a win-win for Europe and all NATO nations. The Arab energy exporting countries could also benefit if they undertake a massive investment in energy infrastructure to increase and redirect surpluses energy resources and add especially clean energy technology, like wind and solar, to support not only Ukraine but also the EU. We are lucky it is spring and not winter.
Further, pipelines through the Ukraine can be reversed from going West to going East from ports of the EU. One modal is what we did for Berlin when the Soviets blocked the city from the West via land, and we flew in supplies. The cost would be great but the investment is needed and would ensure long-term access that could not be disrupted by Putin. It would also put people to work and help the economy of Europe in a massive way. It would be a financial disaster for Putin and his regime.
The other side of the equation would be the need for care in the use of military. The Ukraine has been careful to react to Russian induced provocation. Yet not to make some military reaction to massive Russian forces right on the Ukrainian Eastern border could be an invitation to invasion, especially since the Russians and their supporters are continuing to carry out large scale demonstrations and acts of brutality to non-Russian speakers in the Eastern parts of the nation. Inviting, they hope, counter acts. There is need to seal that border against incursions of the bus loads of provocateurs that are trying to undermined the unity of Ukraine. The question is, should they reinforce Ukraine forces in the East to at least maintain some degree of civil normality?
But frankly against the weak Ukrainian forces the Russians could, if they wished, occupy much of the Eastern areas. The problem is that if Putin has decided to invade Ukraine, not acting would be an invitation since he has shown no need for a real reason to act as he wishes.
Today in Europe just before President Obama arrives, the NATO SHAPE commander said that Russian troops were very strong and there were calls for sending added troops to Germany. Further, the EU and NATO could provide equipment and supplies to give Ukraine credibility and a more effective defense. Further, our NATO ally Poland must be watching these developments with the fear that Russian troops would one day be on their borders to invade Poland.
Obama will need a careful and cautious strategy to not add to the dangers of unneeded conflict, and he has made clear that diplomacy is the preferred option. However, given the brutality he saw in the Crimea and the massing of Russian troops, he has to also be prepared for the worst. The problem is that war is almost unthinkable, but total surrender to further Russian aggression would create a severe despair and disunity within the West and insecurity throughout Europe.
From a strategic viewpoint the problem with Putin is that he seems unable and unwilling to think of the ultimate consequences of his series of acts leading to a military confrontation of two nuclear armed nations. But if he has some sense of the cost, he may pause since he already has gained Crimea without a single loss of life.
Yet Obama must also calculate the same risks. It is only too easy for those who are required to think about these things to see clear paths towards massive disaster. We need a careful but robust opposition use of strong sanctions and a sensitivity to dialogue and diplomacy because on the other side is a leader and his colleagues who seem for the moment willing to ignore consequences for so little real gain.
By the end of the week we are likely to see a bit more clearly what Putin is up to and what the West is willing or not willing to do to respond and prepare for making the West able to strengthen its energy situation, economy, and its security.
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