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Confronting Putin’s Invasion

It can—and must—be done.

Mar 17, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 26 • By ERIC EDELMAN
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Second, if Putin can pull off a smash and grab operation against Crimea without being made to pay a serious and significant price, others will draw their own conclusions. Would the “international community” exact a price subsequently if China seized the Senkaku Islands or even Taiwan? Would Pyongyang or Tehran conclude that it might have more leeway for aggressive moves against its neighbors?

Third, there is a huge nonproliferation issue (allegedly the president’s highest national security priority) at stake. Ukraine, as one of the successor states to the former Soviet Union, found itself in 1991 with nuclear weapons on its territory to which it laid claim. It was one of the Clinton administration’s signal diplomatic achievements to have gotten Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan to agree to return the nuclear weapons on their respective territory to Russia, leaving one nuclear weapons state on the territory of the former USSR rather than four. In return, the United States, United Kingdom, and Russia all signed, along with Ukraine, the Budapest Memorandum, which accompanied Ukraine’s adherence to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Inter alia, that document committed Russia to “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” and imposed on Russia an “obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defense or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.” If left standing, Russian aggression will establish that security assurances offered by the nuclear weapons states to states that willingly give up their nuclear weapons or weapons programs mean precisely nothing.

What is to be done? Several commentators have suggested there are no military options and effective diplomacy and soft power are the order of the day. This trope of the mainstream media implicitly supports the Obama administration’s standard response to criticism—any alternative to the current policy would result in a “war” that would require U.S. “boots on the ground.” Such either/or thinking totally ignores a range of more forceful middle options that would, in this case, give the president more tools with which to manage the crisis.

The first order of business is clearly to reinforce Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity. Dispatching Secretary Kerry to Kiev was a valuable first step, but it would have been better had he been accompanied by either Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel or the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey. Kerry needs to be followed by a long line of NATO and EU foreign ministers to consult, guide, and reassure the Ukrainian interim government. Shoring up the Ukrainian economy (in conjunction with the EU) is obviously the most immediate and important signal to be sent. It would be good, however, to dispatch a military needs assessment team to identify crucial shortfalls in the Ukrainian military and to lay the basis for urgent and longer-term military assistance programs on a bilateral U.S.-Ukraine basis. This should be done in coordination with (and as a stimulant to) a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission as recently recommended by former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe James Stavridis. The commission could help share intelligence with the Ukrainians but also assist them with planning a more targeted NATO military assistance program.

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