Europeans See Ukraine and Fear Russia? Time for Them to Take over Europe’s Defense

Had the U.S. been so foolish as to bring Ukraine into NATO, Washington would have a treaty responsibility to start World War III.  Today’s game of geopolitical chicken might have a nuclear end.

Still, the West cannot easily ignore Russia’s Crimean takeover.  It was an act of aggression against Kiev, yet a majority of Crimean residents may welcome the move.  Although secessionist sentiment has been largely dormant of late, the Western-supported putsch/street revolution against President Viktor Yanukovich inflamed pro-Russian passions in eastern Ukraine. 

Of course, Moscow intervened for its own ends.  And Putin is wrong, dangerously wrong, to use force.  But how to punish Moscow?  America’s direct stake in the controversy is essentially nil. 

Putin is a garden-variety authoritarian, not another Adolf Hitler.  The former’s ambitions are focused on border security and international respect, not global conquest and ideological domination.  Moreover, Russia—with a weak economy dependent on energy revenues and badly managed military in desperate need of reform—is no Nazi Germany. 

Since whatever happens between Russia and Ukraine poses little threat to Americans, military retaliation is inconceivable.  Yet the administration added fighter patrols in Europe and others have proposed sending the Sixth Fleet into the Black Sea.  However, absent plans to strafe Russian villages and seize Sevastopol, what’s the point? 

Former White House aides Stephen J. Hadley and Damon Wilson advocated “deploying and exercising NATO forces in Poland, the Baltic states, and Romania.”  That would only reinforce Moscow’s determination to prevent Ukraine from becoming a similar advance base for the U.S. military.

John Bolton suggested putting “both Georgia and Ukraine on a clear path to NATO membership.”  Yet alliances are supposed to increase America’s security, not increase the likelihood of confrontation and war.

The Europeans don’t have much of a military option because they don’t have much of a military.  Despite constant exhortations from Washington to do more, almost all European states are cutting back.

Which leaves economic and diplomatic sanctions for both America and Europe.  Alas, many measures, such as individual visa bans, would have but minimal impact on Moscow. 

More serious would be sanctioning Russian banks, restricting energy sales, and embargoing trade.  However, enthusiasm in Europe for acting drops the farther one moves from Russia. 

Moscow also could retaliate by freezing the assets of Western businesses.  Moreover, Russia could damage significant allied interests elsewhere, impeding logistical support for Afghanistan and buttressing Iran in negotiations over its nuclear program, for instance. 

As I point out in my latest article on Forbes online:  “The best answer for the Crimean crisis is a negotiated climb-down, where Russia pulls back its forces, Kiev addresses those disenfranchised by Yanukovich’s ouster, Crimea delays its referendum, Ukraine accepts a secession vote, Europe respects the result, Washington stops meddling in Kiev’s politics, and everyone disavows any intention of bringing Ukraine into NATO.”

If Moscow forges ahead anyway, the allies should play a long game—employ limited economic sanctions against business elites and sustained diplomatic pressure against political elites, while avoiding a new cold war.  However, the U.S. should act only in cooperation with Europe, since there is no gain to unilaterally penalizing American business. 

Finally, over the longer-term, Washington should force Europe to take over responsibility for its own defense.  In early March the administration undertook what Secretary of State John Kerry termed “concrete steps to reassure our NATO allies.”  Actually, Washington should adopt the opposite strategy.  America’s friends should understand that if they are not willing to defend themselves, no one else will do so. 

At the same time, Washington should rethink nonproliferation policy.  It’s too late for Ukraine, but Kiev gave up Soviet nuclear weapons left on its soil in return for paper border guarantees.  Possession of even a handful of nuclear-tipped missiles would have changed Moscow’s risk calculations. 

Whatever the resolution of the immediate crisis, the Obama administration should use Russia’s Crimean gambit to end Europe’s dependent military relationship.  That would offer at least one silver lining to yet another potential conflict without end.