UKRAINE: WHAT NOW?
By Harry C. Blaney III
The Ukraine crisis is quickly shifting to a critical stage that veers towards the use of force with unknown consequences. Media pundits and editorials range from an imminent declaration of war between Ukraine and Russia to hopes for a peaceful settlement. On the other side, American leaders are still looking for a diplomatic solution with the hope of a possible meeting between the main parties this Thursday. The White House said they were not planning to send arms to Ukraine.
There are reports coming out of Ukraine today that indicate a modest, probably ineffective but perhaps prudent, use of Ukrainian forces to reverse or stop further acts of Russian-induced takeovers of key sites by alleged Russian-paid armed thugs or Ukrainian allies in Eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian forces launched a “special operation” on Tuesday against separatist militia in the Russian-speaking east, authorities said. Although aside from a landing by airborne troops, the action was limited. One news agency reported that soldiers disembarked from two helicopters at an airfield at Kramatorsk, where reporters earlier heard gunfire that seemed to prevent an air force plane from landing. The troops withdrew into barracks after local civilians manning a barricade gave them a hostile reception when they tried to leave the compound.
In Kiev, acting president Oleksander Turchinov declared a much-needed victory over pro-Russian rebels by saying the air base had been “liberated”. But there was no sign of militants. Meanwhile, a senior Ukrainian officer told the unarmed crowd that he had come to direct an “anti-terrorist operation.” Kiev asked for armed pro-Moscow activists to end occupations of public buildings in some 10 places in the east. The report added that after a scuffle with some of the hundreds who chanted hostility to the new Ukrainian authorities, some of them holding Russian flags, the troops pulled back at dusk.
The remaining question of Kiev’s stated resolve to challenge Kremlin-orchestrated militants marks an escalation of the deepest East-West crisis since the Cold War. The fear remains that the West and Kiev are concerned that Russia might militarily intervene to “protect” Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine, following its annexation of the Crimean region last month.
The Russian foreign ministry on its side said it was “deeply concerned” by what were reports of casualties in eastern Ukraine, though it was unclear where any such incidents had taken place.
On the American side, a spokesman for U.S. President Barack Obama said Ukraine’s government was obliged to respond to “provocations” in the east but Washington was not considering sending arms to Kiev but was “seriously considering” adding to sanctions imposed after the annexation of Crimea. The State Department said such action was unlikely before a meeting in Geneva on Thursday at which U.S., EU, and Ukrainian officials will try to persuade Russia to defuse the situation.
Not helping the situation has been the cries on the more extreme sides of the ideological spectrum based more on “idee fixed” perspectives with little understanding of first order consequences or even a serious look at on the ground realities, as opposed to irreversible, pie in the sky actions. What we are seeing too often is this “idee fixe” of rigid beliefs and isolated assumptions held often by those who can’t think out of their own narrow boxes. Thus, we see those who would advocate mindless actions that have a high chance of instigating a war between Russia and the West.
On the other side are those that think the only option is to acquiesce Putin’s demands and to surrender the Ukraine that they even argue should belong to Russia and its authoritarian master. Some members of this latter school have no concern with the fate of 46 million Ukrainians, no thought of what such a stance would motivate Putin to take even greater risks. Nor do they understand what this might mean for the NATO Alliance, the security of Western and Eastern Europe, or the implication of views of other actors like China, North Korea, and others with a malevolent posture towards America and our friends and allies.
The worst tendencies on the right is to take this crisis as an opportunity to criticize President Obama and Secretary Kerry by saying they are “weak” and “ineffectual.” They are using cheep shots and worse, they are urging steps which, if they were in power and had to be responsible for decisions of war and peace, they would not likely (I hope) take. What is equally irresponsible are those recent editorials in conservative papers and right-wing columnists that say Obama should act in a military way strongly against Putin. They do not put on the line the specific acts of war and military opposition they would favor, describe likely reactions, or accept the willingness to pay the likely consequences.
What is needed is a true understanding of the plans and actions of Putin, a look at the strategic realities on the ground, a need to understand the long-term objectives of the West regarding Russia and the entire region.
The harsh reality is that there are few “good” costless options on either side of the argument on what needs to be done. Standing down to Putin’s blatant aggression is not a good option for obvious reasons. Nor is urging Ukraine to go to war, nor is putting our own solders at risk at the line of combat with Russia. Do we urge the Ukraine to go to war and see their weaker solders and nation devastated and controlled like Hitler did to Czechoslovakia and Poland and most of Europe? It seems that Obama and Kerry see the conundrum and pitfalls and are still trying with their national security team to find the right balance between countervailing actions, deterrence, and diplomatic tools of negotiation.
What is true and this we may not know as it is NOT wise to broadcast publicly now what our actions might be as they would create problems for all sides in negotiations, especially for Russia, if they were perceived to back down under American pressure. There must be some way out for Russia on the diplomatic tract but on the other side there must be convincing, and essentially truly punishing, sanctions and actions which would be so costly to Putin and his regime that the gains in the Ukraine will look to all as costly beyond their dreams. These sanctions need to be agreed upon now within the Alliance and the EU and, while kept secret, made known to Putin and his henchmen. These sanctions must be fully believable and of such magnitude to make any leader rethink his actions.
The unfortunately the problem is that Europe seems not quite there to be bold, and sadly it may only be possible to think of true comprehensive sanctions after Ukraine has fallen to dismemberment, disastrous externally induced civil war, or destruction by Russian troops. If Russian solders will be at the edge of NATO on the Poland Eastern border or at the gates of Kiev, this can only be an unstable situation.
Every power in Europe will be rethinking their security and position in this “new world” of an unstable “hot cold war.” The consequence of that will have an after life of decades both in their perception of Western power and resolve, and of American leadership. Many will have to rethink their defense position and size of their forces. On this, some conservatives have part of this problem right, but their often crazy war type simple solutions would bring on even more disbelief, fear, and anguish at how unwise a deliberate war would be in their region. American lost much of its standing around the world when America invaded Iraq earlier with these same “war hawks” urging a win-less, mindless, and interminable war of choice.
Looking at a proposed option of America namely the use of “peacekeepers”: this initiative is a blind ally if it must be done with Security Council action, since Russia, and perhaps China, will likely veto it. The hard alternative is a fast deployed, armed international peacekeeping force of the willing at the invitation of the Ukraine government, which would be legal. The troops, from some NATO countries (if they have the gumption) and Non-NATO nations, would act with a mandate to be true neutral “peacekeepers.” Their job would not be to fight the Russians or even the thugs in the East paid for by the Russians. Rather they would act as a protective force against any side using aggressive or deadly force against civilians in Ukraine and to protect key sites, such as government buildings, power plants, and communications. The aim would be to stabilize the region from premeditated acts of armed thugs, give the Ukrainians time to sort out their problems, and seek a common future vision. I would not bet on this option, but it has a chance to act as a fire break on an invasion or an external effort at destabilizing and partition. It would need to be accompanied by a massive influx of aid and energy supplies, which still have not materialized. Perhaps, as I have suggested in other blogs, a Berlin airlift modal would help convince both the Ukrainians they have a future and the Russians that the West can act effectively – “eventually” as Churchill once said.
Once this problem get sorted out we need to sit down with our allies and friends and start to “rethink’ our collective national security stance and policies in a thoughtful way, neither with knee-jerk reactions nor indifference to the new realities.
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