Post #15: Obama’s Defining Moment?

Now that Crimea is in Vladimir Putin’s pocket, Russian soldiers, jets, artillery, and trucks are arrayed all along the border with eastern Ukraine. What will the US and NATO do if Putin decides to invade eastern Ukraine on the pretext of being “forced” to respond, either to a call for help from Russian-speaking people who say they face a “grave threat” from Ukrainian “fascists,” or to another “referendum” in which parts of eastern Ukraine vote for “association” with the Russian Federation?

Up until US satellite photos showed the huge Russian deployments, the betting was that Putin’s objective was to destabilize Ukraine—first, by encouraging Russian speakers in the east and south to take over buildings and demand Russian intervention; second, by deploying an intimidating military force within easy striking distance.  Now Russia specialists are not so sure.  Putin may be willing to pay a heavy price to acquire another part of Ukraine and eventually gobble up the rest as the Ukraine state collapses.  (As I send this post, Ukraine’s leaders are vowing to remove pro-Russian “terrorists” who have seized police stations and other buildings in various eastern Ukraine cities.)

Trying to figure out Putin’s motives and objectives reminds me of the debate during the Stalin era about what was driving Soviet policy.  In essence the debate was between those who explained Stalin’s actions in terms of Marxism-Leninism and promoting world revolution, and those who explained them in terms of power politics and Russian security needs.  The debate over Putin is somewhat different.  Instead of ideology, Putin is said by some analysts to be mainly motivated by the determination to revive Russia’s grandeur and its unique, non-European culture (see  In this view, Putin aims to put together a new bloc of countries that would be economically and politically loyal to Moscow and resistant to Western influences.  Other analysts see Putin operating mainly in line with traditional Russian security concerns.  As a Russian opposition politician said in a New York Times report, Putin “wants Ukraine to be, one, absolutely neutral, and two, dependent on Moscow.”  It’s the same strategy he has employed in Georgia, Abkhazia, and Moldova.

In the early years of the Cold War, the view of Stalin as being mainly motivated by Marxism-Leninism predominated in Washington.  The result was a rapid remobilization of the US military, the formation of NATO, and the start of trillions of dollars in military spending.  If Putin is seen as the next Russian czar, we’re in for another long period of tensions and escalating actions by each side to demonstrate “resolve” and “toughness.”  On the other hand, if Putin is viewed as a “realist” who wants to keep the West away from Russia’s gates and restore Russian predominance in its “near abroad,” the US, NATO, and Ukraine may be able to negotiate a nonmilitary outcome to the current crisis.

Thus far, the United States is only prepared to increase sanctions beyond those imposed since the Crimea “election” and to reaffirm defense of Poland and the Baltic countries if Putin takes further steps to aggrandize territory.  The Ukraine government, however, has already declared Russian military intervention in Crimea an act of aggression.  Under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which Russia has now stomped on, Ukraine (along with Belarus and Kazakhstan) gave up the nuclear weapons Russia had stationed on its territory in return for a pledge from Russia, the US, and Great Britain to resist violations of its territorial integrity.  Here is the relevant paragraph of that undertaking:


“2. The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defence or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations . . . ( ).”

Would/should the US and NATO act under that agreement—granted, not a treaty, but signed by Boris Yeltsin, Bill Clinton, and John Major—and come to Ukraine’s assistance?  Keep in mind that the agreement does not obligate anyone to come to Ukraine’s defense if it is attacked or threatened.

You can be sure that President Obama will be challenged, and not just from the right, to respond forcefully to any Russian military move beyond Crimea.  He is already under attack for being soft in foreign policy, with some critics even going so far as to hold him responsible for Putin’s aggressiveness.  If Putin were to seize eastern Ukraine, Obama will face the greatest test of his presidency, for he will know full well that any military countermove could mean war.  Will he—should he—decide: “here and no further,” as the West did in 1948 after Russia invaded Czechoslovakia?

Those who advocate a forceful response to Russia might propose that NATO, on the invitation of the Ukraine government, place a “protection force” along eastern Ukraine’s border with Russia to deter Russian entry.  The precedent, though carried out as a UN peacekeeping operation, was deployment of UNPROFOR monitors (civilian as well as military) to the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia in the early 1990s—a successful effort to prevent war from seeping over the borders of Albania and the former Yugoslavia (  UN Security Council endorsement is out of the question now because of the Russian veto, so this could only be a NATO mission.  But a protection force would be highly risky, as it would dramatically escalate transform the situation into a NATO-Russia confrontation.

Maybe over time, sanctions will bring Putin to his senses.  But truly hurting sanctions, Obama may find, will be difficult to implement.  The most harmful to Russia would be those that are also harmful to Europe and/or to the giant global corporations—Big Oil (Exxon-Mobil et al.) and Big Credit (Visa, MasterCard).  The fact that post-Soviet Russia is heavily integrated in the global economy once was regarded as a giant plus; but now, in the wake of Crimea, that very integration shields Russian political, financial, and energy leaders from painful sanctions.  Imagine, for example, if Obama were willing and able to get the Big Credit companies to stop all transactions, or get the Big Oil corporations to halt technology transfers and joint drilling ventures.  The Russian economy would be in quite a fix then, and, as Thomas Friedman has argued (, a US energy “grand strategy” divorced from reliance on foreign oil might be kick-started.

Trouble is, Big Oil and Big Credit are very unlikely to go along.  International law is one thing, making money for investors another.  No matter that they would be siding with Putin.  Politics, the multinationals have always insisted, isn’t their business.

It may be that the only realistic options for the US and EU are to fortify Ukraine’s economy, which is now underway with (promises of) major loans; provide the Ukraine military with defensive arms; and await the future time when it will become clear to Putin’s inner circle and xenophobic Russians just how much their country has overextended itself.  These do not sound like very strong responses to the invasion of a sovereign country.  But we might remember that the US is not on solid moral or strategic ground when it comes to Ukraine—first, because Ukraine is to Russia as Latin America has always been to the US—its sphere of influence; second, because the US has no vital national security interest in Ukraine; third, because neither the US nor NATO has a treaty obligation to defend Ukraine, even if Ukraine asked to be defended.

Any way you look at it, the Cold War has resumed.


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