Crisis in Ukraine

04.02.14

Les Gelb Puts Russia in Its Place—and Critics in Theirs

If the United States is going to stand up to aggressors around the world its policies have to have a military dimension.

Crazy commenters of The Daily Beast unite! You have nothing to lose but your brains. Right, I’m also crazy for answering you. But I can’t resist a fight against commenters who don’t read, or can’t, or read only their own prejudices. And loonies aside, I owe explanations to the serious Beast readers who raised important issues about my argument, which was that to deter bad guys the U.S. needs a military dimension beyond economic sanctions and diplomatic slaps.  

I’m worried about the multiplication of bad guys who kill people and grab territory, seemingly without much fear of consequences or cost. In my Sunday piece, which truly stirred up the beasts, that’s what I was trying to wrestle with.

Legitimately, many readers worried about nuclear war. Sure, me too. But was their real objection limited to the question of defending Ukraine? Or would they resist taking the same risks over Poland or even Great Britain? My sense from these kinds of letters is that many readers were hiding behind nuclear war in order to avoid any military action virtually anywhere. And remember, the Americans aren’t the only ones who worry about nuclear war; so do the bad guys.

A host of readers lamented that I was giving Ukraine far too much importance, that we had no commitments there, and no vital interests. I might agree if we were just talking about Ukraine alone, but we are not. It’s pure common sense that aggressors will be emboldened elsewhere if Russia can grab Ukraine without any serious cost. Unless these readers know no history, they are well aware that leaders read our behavior in one place as an indication of how we will behave elsewhere.

Dozens of readers argued that Washington had no commitment whatsoever to Ukraine because it isn’t a NATO member. They are wrong, too. The fact is that Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 only because the plain meaning of that transaction was that the U.S. and Britain would not walk away from a Ukraine threatened by Russia. Why else would they give up their nukes? Are American leaders to pretend now that they perpetrated a hoax on Ukrainian leaders? The Budapest Memorandum does not obligate us to go to war for Ukraine, but it certainly obliges us to do more than simply stand back and slaps the the wrist of a potential aggressor.

Implicit in many criticisms of my piece was the notion that economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation would be good enough to penalize Moscow or even deter it from coming after our NATO partners in the region, but the facts point in a different direction.

First of all, don’t forget that while the U.N. General Assembly voted to condemn Russia’s takeover of Crimea, almost half the membership either voted against the motion or abstained or didn’t vote at all. Notably, India and China didn’t vote against Russia. And I think that President Putin can bear the thought of being left out of the G-8 meeting of leading countries, at least for this round.

Secondly, readers should not cluck their satisfaction so blithely over economic sanctions. Even the harshest of U.S. and world sanctions have not brought major adversaries to their knees. Look at Cuba, Iran or North Korea; these countries are awful to live in, but I don’t think Russia with the eighth largest economy in the world trembles at the thought of sinking to their economic depths. And think about how many countries would be willing to buy Russian oil and gas rejected by Europe—perhaps at a pretty good price as well.

Let me own up truly to the readers and say that what really bothered me and set me off on this subject was the way President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden wrote off any military action on behalf of Ukraine, virtually no matter what Russia might do. “Of course, Ukraine is not a member of NATO, in part because of its close and complex history with Russia,” said Obama. “Nor will Russia be dislodged from Crimea or deterred from further escalation by military force.” What on earth compelled him to be saying to Moscow, in effect, Ukraine is yours for the taking?

Still others bridled at my two suggested U.S. military actions. I said we probably should send 50 to 60 F-22s to Poland “to protect U.S. security interests in the region.” Does this create the risk of a wider war? Yes—for Putin at least as much as for the West. Let him worry for a change, and he will.

My other proposal was to start arming Ukrainian forces ASAP with arms and equipment to enable them to carry out a guerilla war should Russian troops invade their territory. That’s not putting U.S. boots on the ground. It is giving Ukrainians a legitimate defense. And it would be a costly one for the Russians, reminiscent of the horrors Soviet troops faced in Afghanistan. And Putin knows this full well.

Underneath all of this, I guess what I’m really saying is that I am deeply troubled by the Obama team virtually eliminating a military dimension to U.S. national security policy. I’m not sure in every case exactly what military means should be used, but I am certain that elements of force have got to be part of the equation. To give aggressors a world free of potential military costs is to invite great eventual harm to our good friends, to the world, and to us.

Finally and bizarrely, some of the most committable readers accuse me of being a neo-conservative or a neo-liberal or both. Allow me to make the mistake of trying to answer them, too.

Yes, I was a proponent of the Vietnam War for many years, as was almost the entire national security community. We all made the mistake of letting our legitimate worries about the communist threat blind us to the realities of particular countries like Vietnam.

And yes, I initially supported the Iraq War for two reasons: first, people I trusted in the U.S. Government told all of us that Saddam Hussein had nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction; and second, because Saddam had already invaded two countries—Iran and Kuwait—and had already used chemical weapons against Iran and against his own Kurdish people. Those seem pretty good reasons to me. But after some months when it was clear that Saddam didn’t have weapons of mass destruction and that the Bush Administration had no idea what it was doing in and with that country, I become a war critic.

Modesty, of course, forbids me from the citing the legion of instances where I have been correct.