Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military incursion into Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula has generated a storm of commentary and analysis on virtually every question under the sun. What is driving Putin to act in such an aggressive manner? What does Russia’s speedy intervention in Ukraine tell us about the strength of the new government in Kiev? And what can NATO and the European Union possibly do in response?
All of these questions strike at the heart of the manner, and the answers will determine whether the Ukrainian crisis can be resolved through a process of de-escalation—Washington and NATO’s first preference—or made worse by ill-timed and uninformed decisions.
Back in Washington, there is an entirely different set of questions that are being batted around. Historically, a crisis of international proportions would band Republican and Democratic lawmakers together. Yet in an age of rapid partisanship on seemingly every major policy issue, that tradition has been relegated to the sidelines. Moscow’s adventure in Crimea is instead resurrecting a divisive and politically-charged debate on foreign policy that has often clouded the Obama administration’s legacy since the moment it assumed office five years ago. The central question is and remains: Is the United States under President Obama being too passive on the international stage and abdicating global leadership?
“Weak, soft, unprincipled,” and “naïve” are words that President Obama and his national security aides in the White House now well; from the administration’s early decision to “reset” America’s bilateral relationship with Russia to Obama’s personal determination for a comprehensive nuclear settlement with Iran, Republicans of all ideological stripes have used the “America-is-weak” argument as a way to rile their base and diminish the president’s credibility on matters of foreign policy.
Putin’s quick and unchallenged military invasion of Ukraine’s strategic Crimea Peninsula—an area that has a majority Russian population and has traditionally been a part of Russian territory—has provided these same Republicans with a great talking point to buttress their claims. Speaking to the CBS program Face the Nation on Sunday, March 9, former vice president Dick Cheney connected Putin’s actions in Ukraine directly to what he views as America’s inability to lead the world since the Obama team entered the White House. “We have created an image around the world,” Cheney stated, “not just for the Russians, of weakness, of indecisiveness.” Former Republican vice presidential nominee (and rumored 2016 presidential candidate) Paul Ryan immediately picked up where Cheney left off on the same program, categorizing the earlier U.S.-Russia reset policy as “naïve, wishful thinking,” while at the same time encouraging the administration to revisit a missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic that was scrapped as costly and strategically useless in 2009. Even Condoleezza Rice, the former Secretary of State in the George W. Bush administration, entered the discussion with an op-ed in The Washington Post, urging renewed American global leadership in order to ensure that an already tense situation in Ukraine doesn’t get worse.
Conservatives are right, however, about one point: in the opening hours of Russia’s intervention in Crimea, Washington was caught a bit flat-footed. Part of the surprise can be chalked up to the initial confusion over the intelligence community’s assessment of the situation, where there appeared to be a stark difference of opinion on whether Putin would send troops into Ukraine. In an ideal world, the Obama administration could have been more prepared during the first forty-eight hours of the crisis, perhaps by ensuring that the White House, State Department, and Pentagon had a ready-to-go policy package that they could have quickly employed to deal with such a contingency.
Legitimate critiques notwithstanding, it is long past time to stop carping over the Obama administration’s initial response. Instead, Republicans and Democrats alike need to work together in a rare act of bipartisanship to implement a unified policy that is helpful to Ukraine’s future, punishes Russia for its clear violation of the United Nations Charter and highlights U.S. resolve during a time of international crisis.
Taken from an objective perspective, it is difficult to see what the United States can plausibly do to convince the Russians to withdraw their 20,000+ soldiers from Crimea, short of Western acceptance of Moscow’s de-facto annexation of the peninsula. The same policies that hawkish conservatives are recommending—strict economic sanctions on Russian oligarchs surrounding President Putin; increased military commitment to NATO countries like Poland and the Baltic states; the deployment of the USS Truxton to the Black Sea for exercises; diplomatic isolation of the Russian Federation in the world community—are either already occurring, or are being actively embraced.
A broad system of visa restrictions and asset freezes on Russian individuals “[who] undermine democratic processes and institutions in Ukraine [and] threaten its peace, security, stability, sovereignty, and territorial integrity” have been in effect since March 6. The U.S. House of Representatives swiftly passed a $1 billion loan package to the interim Ukrainian Government in a bipartisan fashion last week, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has passed their own bipartisan assistance package in an overwhelming 14-3 vote. And in a show of support to the NATO alliance, Washington has taken military steps as well, including the deployment of six additional F-15 aircraft to the Baltic Air patrol fleet and an enhanced military training partnership with Poland.
Indeed, the only major recommendations that that the Obama administration has neglected to fully adopt or implement are those that could very well work at cross-purposes with a political solution to the crisis, including preparing the Republic of Georgia for admission into NATO.
The United States may be the world’s remaining superpower, but even a country that possesses unparalleled military, political, and economic power would be wise to operate on a classic realist paradigm: what are America’s core national security interests in the Ukraine, and how can the United States best accomplish those objectives within a reasonable cost? Fortunately, after a few days of rancorous partisan bickering about the administration’s “reset” policy and President Obama’s credibility on the world stage, it now appears that the White House and Congress—while still divided on the intricacies of the response—are all in agreement that the U.S. must defend above all else the very basic obligations of the UN charter: “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.”
The Russian incursion into Crimea is an unquestionable breach of international law and a clear violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. Vladimir Putin, however, seems to care little about these concerns, particularly when he believes that Moscow’s national interests are directly at stake. The trick for the United States, the European Union, NATO, and every other power opposed to the use of brute force is to respond in unison, but without provoking Putin into a further act of aggression. This problem represents a classic deterrence-reassurance dilemma—the US must balance between deterring further Russian aggression and reassuring Putin that the US, EU, and NATO do not plan on threatening Russia’s interests if it behaves like a responsible power. While the US must show strength and resolve, it must also better understand why Moscow is acting in such a bold and aggressive manner.
Some, like Rep. Paul Ryan, have called for the reinstatement of the Bush-era missile defense shield in Eastern Europe as a perfect way to demonstrate America’s resolve. Yet even this option could create more problems for the United States than it solves: if the objective is to punish Moscow while at the same time deescalating the crisis in Crimea, it is difficult to see how more missile defenses in Russia’s neighborhood could achieve that balance. Playing to Putin’s sense of insecurity is not the best recipe for preventing further aggression.
Moving forward, Washington should focus on how to solve the crisis at hand rather than dithering over the Obama administration’s previous policies. The last thing the US needs when its credibility is on the line is to have its own politicians repeatedly questioning the country’s credibility. Political debates over whether the administration’s past policy toward Russia has been naïve can take place once this crisis has been resolved.
Daniel R. DePetris and Erik French are analysts for Wikistrat, Inc., a geopolitical consulting firm. The views expressed here are the authors' alone.