The debate is intensifying over whether and how to provide more military assistance to Ukraine, even as Putin keeps changing the rules of the game. The Financial Times:
The debate has been galvanised by the reports over the last week that additional Russian troops and weapons have helped to open up a new front of fighting in southeastern Ukraine between pro-Russian rebels and the Ukrainian military.
While the White House has stopped short of labelling the new fighting a Russian “invasion”, leading figures in the US Congress have called on the administration to do more to deter Moscow.
Russia expert (and few westerners know Russia today as well) Ben Judah argues in the New York Times, that “either we arm Ukraine, or we force Kiev to surrender and let Mr. Putin carve whatever territories he wants into a Russian-occupied zone of ‘frozen conflict.’” That is pretty much where things stand after Russia’s latest offensive (again, apparently catching the flat-footed White House by surprise) upended the military situation in eastern Ukraine. With a small intervention, Putin has yet again thrown Western calculations out of kilter, gained the initiative on the ground, and given the West another chance to look feckless and divided as he carries out the largest scale act of naked aggression in Europe since Hitler’s war.
America’s choices here (as in the Middle East) are few and they are ugly. We can back Ukraine with enough weapons, money, political will and if necessary air power and boots on the ground to tip the balance on the ground, or we can watch Russia conquer as much of the country as it wants. A Russian victory here won’t be the end; Putin is an empire builder and his goal is to restore the Kremlin power in all the former lands of the USSR, for starters.
A Russian win in Ukraine will change the world. Putin’s flagrant violation of every standard of decency and restraint leaves the United States with the choice of confronting him or living in a Mad Max world ruled—if at all—by the law of the jungle. Putin is a thug who believes ultimately in nothing except power, and thugs everywhere are watching what he gets away with. The more successfully he demonstrates that American power has turned into a scarecrow that looks impressive but doesn’t move, the more crows everywhere will come flocking to the feast. So far, Putin has done an excellent job of demonstrating that NATO is a collection of incompetent windbags and that President Obama is only as intimidating as the teleprompter he reads from. The whole world is watching the serial miscalculations that the EU and the U.S. have made on this issue; our inability to read the international situation could not be more evident, our reluctance to act is no secret, our stomach churning fear of taking on bullies is obvious to all, and the divisions and institutional shortcomings that make it impossible for the west to respond effectively in real time are on full, inglorious display.
If Putin now wins in Ukraine, all these unflattering conclusions about American incompetence and indecisiveness will be seared into the memories of every leader on Planet Earth. President Obama will be an empty suit and the next president of the United States will inherit a much uglier world and a weaker alliance system than President Obama found on his inauguration day.
That said, it is much easier to bemoan the consequences of a Russian victory than at this point to figure out what we can do to change things. As we’ve noted, the biggest problem with helping Ukraine has nothing to do with the Russian army. It has everything to do with the lack of evidence of successful state-building in the 25 years of Ukrainian independence, a succession of failures which has been a huge contributing factor to Ukraine’s vulnerability. As Americans learned in South Vietnam, and have learned all over again from Maliki in Iraq and Karzai in Afghanistan, when your local allies are incompetent, corrupt and pursuing agendas that you don’t understand, even the 500,000 troops we had in Vietnam can’t get you to where you need to be.
If stopping Russia is to become a real option, the current civil situation in Ukraine will have to change. What is needed is a come to Jesus meeting with the real rulers of Ukraine—the oligarchs and the power brokers who have made the country the mess that it is, plus the handful of reformers who really count. The question is whether the oligarchs and their henchmen are in some mix of sentiments afraid enough of Putin, desirous enough of regularizing their situation with the West, and patriotic enough to be willing to stop leeching off their country so that we can actually help them with some prospect of success. And are the reformers smart enough and ruthless enough in their own way to take the ball and run with it if the oligarchs give them a shot? Are the Ukrainians who want to live in a real country numerous enough, well organized enough and determined enough to carry out a top to bottom social revolution even as they fight for their lives against Moscow?
It’s likely, by the way, that a real grassroots state building revolution in Ukraine won’t be pretty enough to make the moralistic NGOs and EU bureaucrats happy. Revolutions under conditions of foreign invasion are not usually carried out by people who are scrupulously concerned about every jot and tittle of European human rights law; they are usually carried out by people willing to string crooked officials up on the lampposts after relatively short and informal legal proceedings.
One doesn’t know what Western leaders have been doing on Ukraine; press accounts suggests they are fatuously haggling over insufficient sanctions, reacting to last week’s events, underestimating Putin and generally trying to look pretty for their publics without actually confronting any serious issues. But if they are serious, or if there are serious people below the top who want their leaders to have some realistic options when and if they decide to stop posing and start doing, it’s past time to think hard about what a genuine nation building program would look like in Ukraine. How much money is required from the outside? How much in the way of political and economic reform is needed on the inside? What kind of laws and restrictions will the oligarchs need to accept and how much of their criminal gains must they either disgorge or repatriate?
Meanwhile, we have to think seriously about the military situation. It is no good making solemn declarations that ‘military solutions are out of the question’. Military solutions are exactly what this is about: how much territory can Putin conquer and who or what is ready to fight him? Putin laughs at the West’s moralism and sense of outraged propriety; indeed, he considers the vanity and moralistic posturing of Western leaders to be one of his most valuable assets. What would it take in the form of arms deliveries, training, air support or NATO troops to crush Putin’s forces in Ukraine and send him slinking home with his tail between his legs?
Remember that Putin is capable of rattling the nuclear saber, and that he’s also shown himself time and again willing and able to put more assets on the table than conventional minded, group thinking Western ‘experts’ predicted. He is dancing outside the box. We, at least, need to be thinking outside it.
The first step toward having a Ukraine policy is to look at what it takes to get a win in Ukraine and ask if we can assemble the political, economic and military instruments of power that victory requires. And if, as usually happens, the enemy surprises us and the path to victory trickier and more twisted than we thought, ask ourselves if are we ready to stay the course.
This process by its very nature cannot take place as an institutional process in NATO—the organization is too cumbersome and, frankly, too riddled with potential security risks. (It would be deeply naive to assume that the KGB veteran in the Kremlin hasn’t invested heavily in penetrating NATO; a casual look at the moral standards that prevail in contemporary European bureaucratic and state culture tells us that those investments have probably paid off pretty well.) If the west comes together in real time, it’s going to be a coalition of the willing, especially when it comes to the military aspect—at least in the early phases. Others may come along at their own pace, perhaps after the Russians have taken delivery on their latest arms sales. That probably means Poland and the Baltic states plus a few more NATO allies who see the historic nature of the crisis and are ready to act: the Brits, and maybe some Nordics in or out of NATO. On the non-military side, where broader support can be expected for economic assistance and so on, different venues would need to be used.
Poland and some of its neighbors are going to be key. As military allies, they can be of great help, and once EU and NATO forces from several countries are engaged the rest of Europe is going to come under pressure to do the right thing. But also these countries have the experience of climbing out of the slough of despondency in which Ukraine now wallows; they’ve built modern governments, however imperfect, and they’ve built post-Soviet economies whatever problems remain. Polish factory owners, Lithuanian judges, Estonian school administrators know a lot more about what Ukraine needs than the high priced Beltway Bandit consulting firms that will be itching to get back into the game of nation building for high stakes (and small results). A lot of consultants and experts burned through billions of dollars in failed nation and democracy building missions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Egypt in recent years; they are itching to get their hands on Ukraine money. The eastern Europeans are cheaper, and, unlike the Beltway Banditti, they have a clue.
Economic sanctions have their place, but it is hopelessly naive to think that even sanctions much tougher than anything the West has yet dreamed of will bring Putin to his knees. Sanctions can be useful, but more often they are tools to help politicians look busy and tough while in fact doing nothing. Nine times out of ten, or maybe ninety nine times out of a hundred, sanctions are more symbolism than substance—Iran is one of the rare exceptions, and South Africa was another. While Western foreign ministers amuse themselves by passing draft sanction documents back and forth, it is worth remembering that our goal is to inflict a stinging public humiliation on Putin by undoing his ‘conquest’ of Crimea—something that would almost certainly lead to his fall from power and then to exile or prison if not death. The loss of some machine tool imports from Germany isn’t going to make him put his head in the Western noose. When Western diplomats and political leaders talk about sanctions at this point, you can safely assume that either they haven’t a clue what is going on (clearly true of many of them) or else that they are engaging in avoidance behavior: they want to look busy but they don’t want to act. They want to kick the can down the road and they are ultimately looking for cheap tickets to Munich.
The Ukrainian politics, the alliance politics, the military politics and strategic planning all need to be moving ahead at full speed and all options need to be on the table. This can’t be done the way this White House tends to study options it doesn’t like—which appears to be to throw skeptical questions at the activists and create a cold and hostile atmosphere until the idea ultimately withers and dies. “No, we can’t,” is this White House’s true guiding motto. It is a recipe for disaster in times like these.
Obama needs to understand that the consequences of failing to stand up to Putin are genuinely horrible; Obama is on the verge of destroying the kind of law-based, peaceful geopolitical order he wanted to nourish and of betraying every hope he ever had about building a better world. It’s worse than the specter of Jimmy Carter; the President’s looming humiliation in Europe would make Obama go down in history alongside James Buchanan, another “smart diplomat” paralyzed by the fear of doing “stupid stuff”, a man who dithered, wrung his hands, and foolishly studied his options while the Confederacy assembled and prepared for war.
The President’s recent speech from Talinn appears to show that he gets what’s at stake: “[Putin's aggression] is a brazen assault on the territorial integrity of Ukraine, a sovereign and independent European nation. It challenges that most basic of principles of our international system — that borders cannot be redrawn at the barrel of a gun; that nations have the right to determine their own future.”
But it will take more than fiery speeches to change Putin’s calculus. If Obama is going to change the course of events, he needs to get his foot off the brake pedal and put it on the gas. The White House needs to push the generals, the bankers and the economists to come up with strategies that could work. He should want problem solvers, not problem describers, around him. President Lincoln fired generals who failed him; so far, President Obama is sticking with advisors who have landed him in one ugly mess after another. That must change.
Even if President Obama surrounds himself with can-do civilian and military advisors, it may well turn out that Ukraine can’t be saved. If Ukraine’s leadership (and by this we mean the people who actually run the country, not the people who sign communiques at international summits) isn’t willing to take a stand, Ukraine is as lost as Putin wants it to be. The President shouldn’t pull the trigger if the Ukrainians themselves aren’t committed and on this central point his instincts for caution are right.
But Ukraine isn’t South Vietnam and it isn’t Afghanistan. There is much more promising material to work with, and Putin’s aggression has concentrated many minds. Ukraine may not be where it needs to be politically this morning, but there is more than a reasonable chance that with the right help and advice things can change. One can’t rule out the possibility that Ukraine will after all fail, but if that happens it has to be because Ukraine couldn’t pull itself together, not because the United States lacked the will to do its part.
But make no mistake about it; this is going to take a full court press. The administration is going to have to shift to something very like a war footing—not because it wants to fight and win a war but because clear evidence that we are ready and willing to do so as a last resort is the only way short of war to force Putin to retreat. It’s also the only way to make it crystal clear to the Ukrainians: if they will build a nation then we will help them defend it.
To save American honor, prestige and power (not to mention his own reputation), President Obama is going to have to take on a bigger job of nation building and fight a smarter and more dangerous adversary than anybody George W. Bush took on.
And then there is that little matter of the JV terror group known as ISIS, beheading American captives and holding the United States and its president up to ridicule and scorn. Fortunately, while the ideology behind ISIS represents a growing and uncontained strategic threat to the United States, ISIS itself as an organization and nascent state has a lot of weak spots. If (a big if) President Obama shifts from “No, we can’t” to “Yes, we can” as an operational motto, coming up with a strategy to knock ISIS back is doable — and it can be executed even as the United States takes on Putin over Ukraine.
Pivoting to Asia is no longer enough; President Obama needs to pivot to the world—the real world, that is. The real world doesn’t work very much like the world President Obama thought he lived in. It’s not just that the other guys don’t play by the rules; they hate and despise the rules and they don’t think they are playing a game. Our good example won’t make them change their ways. The reset buttons don’t change much, and American restraint and humility (while sometimes important and good in themselves) by themselves will neither make us popular nor bring out the best in our adversaries. We have serious enemies who spend nights and weekends thinking about ways to undermine our power and block our goals. These enemies aren’t all sleeping under goat skin tents in Yemen; many of these people sit in government ministries and fancy office buildings. They are sometimes very good at what they do—in many cases, significantly better than the well groomed and well socialized inside-the-box thinkers of our own bureaucratic machines. The fight against terror is more than a law enforcement problem. The Middle East isn’t transitioning to democracy, we have no way to make it prosperous and the much desired, long awaited moderate Muslim democrats aren’t going to ride magically into town on a herd of unicorns in time to make the terrorists disappear.
President Obama now faces what President Clinton used to yearn for: a genuine world crisis that would allow him a chance to demonstrate the inner greatness he was sure lay inside him. We must hope and pray that the President rises to the times in which he lives. If he fails, our next president will have an even bigger opportunity to be great.