How the U.S. Can Help Solve the Ukraine Crisis: Treat Ukraine Like Georgia?

The George W. Bush administration's approach to Georgia in 2008 could work well for the Obama administration in 2015.

In August 2008, when Russia’s military appeared to be preparing to move through the Roki Tunnel from Russia into Georgia’s South Ossetia, Bush administration officials told Georgia’s then president, Mikheil Saakashvili, “don’t get drawn into a trap” and “don’t confront the Russian military.” They quite correctly feared that what one official termed “a ‘Guns of August’ scenario’” could lead to full-scale war and Georgia’s defeat. Yet today, some seem to think that the United States should take the opposite approach in Ukraine or even to imply that the Obama administration should not have discouraged Kiev from resisting Moscow’s seizure of Crimea from a position of great weakness. Few explain why Ukraine’s escalation—with or without lethal U.S. military assistance—would not spring the same trap that the Bush administration encouraged Georgia to avoid. Even fewer describe what America would have to do to prevent Ukraine’s defeat in a wider war. This does no favors for either the United States or Ukraine.

Perhaps most striking in the Ukraine crisis is the extent to which Western leaders and politicians and pundits agree that “Putin must be stopped” while expecting someone else to do the work. NATO’s new “front line” states in Central Europe appear eager for the United States to arm Ukraine, but reluctant to become too involved themselves (or, for that matter, to increase their defense budgets commensurately with the threat they describe). Western European governments want the United States to take the lead, but don’t want to follow Washington into anything too costly, and the European Union is providing Ukraine with less than 1 percent of the assistance it has committed to Greece. In fairness, Ukraine’s economy is somewhat more than half Greece’s, and Ukraine is not an EU member. Still, Ukraine’s population is four times higher than Greece’s and many European officials describe its fate as almost existential for Europe.

No small fraction of America’s political leaders, including senior officials in the Obama administration, are ready to arm Ukraine, but few if any are willing to send U.S. troops into combat; in other words, they are fully prepared to fight Putin—to the last Ukrainian. Or perhaps to the last dollar that the Congress would authorize for this purpose, a limit that they would likely see sooner, since recent legislative proposals call for about $60 million for offensive weapons out of $300 million in total assistance.

These political realities across NATO’s democracies raise two fundamental questions about policy toward Russia and Ukraine.

The first has to do with commitment and it has two components. Do the “hawks” seeking to force the administration to spend $60 million—roughly equivalent to the proposed 2016 budget for Washington DC’s public libraries—and like-minded Europeans think that minimal commitments like this will do the job? After spending hundreds of billions of dollars to fight nonstate adversaries in Iraq and Afghanistan, with military capabilities considerably inferior to Russia’s, U.S. and European assistance to Ukraine is either a fig leaf or a very small down payment.

In the former case, if $60 million is all that America as a nation is willing to spend to defend Ukraine, we would be better off admitting this to ourselves sooner rather than later. A half-hearted policy (or, for that matter, a 5 percent–hearted policy) to confront Moscow will likely produce outcomes demonstrably worse than a settlement—better to get the most advantages possible negotiated terms than to set up ourselves and the NATO alliance for a high-profile defeat.