Saturday, March 01, 2014

Empty Words

Late Friday, with words of more Russian troops arriving in Ukraine's Crimea Region, President Obama got tough:

"Delivering a blunt warning to Moscow, President Barack Obama expressed deep concern Friday over reported military activity inside Ukraine by Russia and warned "there will be costs" for any intervention.

He did not say what those costs might be.

Obama called on Russia to respect the independence and territory of Ukraine and not try to take advantage of its neighbor, which is undergoing political upheaval."

Then, with that bit of unpleasantness out of the way, Mr. Obama went off to a Democratic National Committee event.  The record will show that Russian President Vladimir Putin was unimpressed with Obama's rhetoric.  I don't think National Review's Victor Davis Hanson got an advance copy of the President's remarks, but he was prescient in describing our "useless outrage" over Russia's military moves. After all, we've been down this road before:

Over the last five years, Obama has issued serial deadlines to Iran to cease and desist from its ongoing enrichment of uranium. All the while, more Iranian centrifuges went on line.
Later, Obama turned from deadlines to red lines. He threatened Syrian president Bashar Assad with one about using chemical weapons. “A red line for us,” the president warned, “is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.”
Assad moved over that American red line, using chemical weapons to gas his own people, and is now winning the war against the Syrian insurgents. In the end, an embarrassed Obama was reduced to denying that he had ever issued a red line in the first place: “I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line.”


Although the U.S. alone seems to honor its promised deadlines of withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq, the world’s aggressors sense that the Obama administration’s bluster will be followed by more bluster. Therefore, they have decided to risk aggrandizements while they can. In the mind of Vladimir Putin, today Ukraine, tomorrow the Baltic States or Eastern Europe. In the minds of the Iranian theocrats, if chemical WMD are okay in Syria, why not nuclear WMD in Iran? In China’s view, when Japan backs off, why shouldn’t Taiwan, South Korea, or the Philippines?

That's why Mr. Putin is more concerned about his next move in the Crimea that any potential response from Washington.  To be sure, there is little the U.S. can do militarily; Ukraine is literally in Putin's back yard and Russia's naval basing agreement with Kiev gives him a convenient excuse for moving troops into the area. Moscow's rubber-stamp Senate has already given the Russian President authority for military action, and his cronies in the Crimea have asked Putin for assistance.  Now, it's just a matter of how quickly Russia's military airlift units can deliver additional forces to the region.   

But that doesn't mean the United States and its allies are not without options. Putin bought his way into the middle of the situation by agreeing to pay off $15 billion in Ukranian debt (and presumably, a little on the side for the country's corrupt former leadership, now believed hiding somewhere in Russia).  When Ukraine's citizens demanded closer ties with Europe and the west, Mr. Obama and his partners couldn't cobble together a bail-out package that is less than our annual foreign aid bill.

And while direct military intervention is not an option, there are steps the U.S. can take around the periphery of Ukraine's borders.  We currently have small military detachments in Poland; the U.S. should consider rotating deployments of F-16s and F-15Es from other locations in Europe (and the United States), to Lansk AB, similar to our bomber deployments to the Far East.  

Washington should also consider a larger naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea regions; we dispatched two ships during the Sochi Olympics (ostensibly to assist with potential counter-terror operations),  Unfortunately, that operation ended badly when one of the vessels, a destroyer, ran aground during a port call in Turkey.  

However, prospects for an increased military presence in eastern Europe and adjacent waters are just about zero.  Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel just unveiled plans to further slash the military budget, so there won't be a lot of money for additional, long-term deployments.  In fact, the Hagel-Obama plan calls for retirement of Air Force's A-10 and U-2 fleets (almost 400 aircraft), and some analysts believe other platforms will be heading for the boneyard as well.  Fewer airplanes means more personnel reductions, and less for operations and maintenance.  In other words, don't look for F-16 or Strike Eagle squadrons at Lansk (or any other Polish bases) any time soon.  

Economic sanctions against Russia are another possibility, but once again, don't hold your breath.  Mr. Obama seems to go out of his way to avoid antagonizing Vladimir Putin, who (as a former KGB agent) knows weaknesses when he sees it.  From the Kremlin's perspective, going into the Crimea is a no-brainer, since they have nothing to fear from the Ukraine and its erstwhile friends in the West.  

Maybe that's what President Obama meant when he told Putin's predecessor (read: sock puppet) that he would have "more flexibility" during his second term.  With Obama in the White House for another three years, Putin and his thugs apparently have the green light to do whatever they choose.  This isn't the first time Mr. Putin has thrown down the gauntlet to his American counterpart.  It won't be the last.  And don't think this latest example of U.S. weakness is going unnoticed in Tehran or Beijing, either.           
ADDENDUM:  Various media outlets are reporting that Mr. Obama skipped a national security meeting on Ukraine this afternoon.  Maybe he believed the preliminary intel assessments that Russia was bluffing; as late as Thursday evening, the bright boys and girls in our intelligence community were assuring decision makers that Moscow had no plans to invade by the Crimea, based on various factors, including an absence of medical units among potential invasion units and the lack of SIGINT activity that suggested Russian units would soon cross the border.  We should note that President Obama spent 90 minutes on the phone with Putin on Saturday--perhaps explaining his absence from the NSC meeting--but the conversation clearly achieved nothing.    


sykes.1 said...

The phrase "Ukraine's citizens" in the quote above is factually false. A subset of its citizens, namely ethnic Ukrainians living in the western part of Ukraine want closer ties to the EU, but the underlying reason is hatred of the ethnic Russians in the eastern and southern part of the country.

Yanukovych government was freely and democratically elected and was the legitimate government of the Ukraine. If the demonstrators supported democracy, they would have waited until the next election and voted the government out. Instead they staged a violent coup d'etat, evidently supported if not instigated by the US and the EU. It might be noted that there were a number of fascists among the demonstrators, some of them armed.

So, this is not a simple story of freedom fighters overthrowing a tyrannical government, as CNN likes to portray it.

Aside from the fact that the Ukraine was part of the Russian empire for hundreds of years (although unwillingly and abused by the communists), Russia has a historic strategic interest in the naval base at Sevastopol. That interest is similar to our's in Pearl Harbor. Russia is willing to fight a large-scale European war to keep its base, just as we would (I hope) to keep Hawaii and Pearl.

Old NFO said...

+1 on Sykes. The real issues are the political division within Ukraine between eastern and western sides of the country and the port.