The senior military commanders at NATO, officials at the State Department, and, yes, even the president of the United States proved Thursday that they have a perfectly clear idea what Russian President Vladimir Putin is doing in Ukraine. They just don’t want to say the word out loud.
So they talk about “interventions” and “incursions” but not, heaven forbid, “invasions.” This, even though they estimate considerably more than 1,000 Russian troops are operating in Ukraine to bolster separatist rebels who were incited, aided, and abetted by the Russian secret services; even though those troops have brought with them heavy weaponry, including motorized artillery and T-72 tanks; even though their anti-aircraft missile shot down a civilian airliner with almost 300 people aboard in July; and even though, in the last few days, they have opened up a new front near the Black Sea coast and engaged in direct, ferocious combat against the Ukrainian army. No, it seems that somehow “invasion” is too strong a word for all that.
“Our focus is more on what Russia is doing, [and] what we’re going to do about it, than what we’re calling it,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
But by playing semantic games, the Obama administration and European leaders are playing Putin’s game. “Confusion,” as a NATO briefer explained Thursday, “is part and parcel of this Russian hybrid warfare strategy.” We are watching an invasion using subversion, coercion, and somewhat limited military action. But it’s an invasion nonetheless. And when you refuse to call things by their real names, you are not only confusing the people who hear you, you’re accepting Putin’s obfuscations. You are sending a signal that says any Western response to his actions will be inconsequential.
Sure, Russia may be made to pay in the long term as a result of stiffened sanctions, but for a leader like Putin, who sees his place in history in millennial terms, the inconvenience of a few years in which the Russian people learn to live without foreign luxuries is no big deal. And if the oligarchs around him, whom he helped create, see their billions of dollars whittled down a bit? That’s the price they should be willing to pay for patriotism.
President Barack Obama, a very sober leader who believes deeply in the use of “soft power,” the influence of economic incentives, the building of coalitions, and, in that overall context, the usefulness of “diplomatic ambiguity” to leave as many options open as possible, clearly feels that the word “invasion” would foreclose too many of them.
After all, you start talking about “invasions” and people think of the blitzkrieg that rolled over Poland in 1939, or Saddam Hussein’s troops pouring into Kuwait in 1990. As former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder points out, if there is one principle that has undergirded global order since 1945 it is that states do not seize territory by force. And in many cases the appropriate response to an invasion has been a declaration of war against the aggressor.
You start talking about “invasion” in Ukraine and demanding retaliation when there are a only few thousand Russians operating advanced weapons systems and advising the rebels, and you may invite an invasion that brings in the more than 20,000 Russian troops kept in position and battle-ready right on the Ukrainian border.
Indeed, the Ukrainian government, which has been accusing Russia of an “invasion” for weeks, is careful not to push so hard against the rebels as to provoke an actual full-scale, nobody-would-quibble-about-it invasion.
So, fair enough, a little diplomatic ambiguity can help you get around such problems. But diplomatic ambiguity that translates into equivocation and weakness is not helpful at all. And Obama, at his press conference Thursday, threw away one of the most important diplomatic notions in any government’s soft power arsenal: the possibility that at some point it will use hard power.
While Obama underlings like State Department briefer Psaki labored mightily to suggest that “all options are on the table,” Obama stated flatly on Thursday that “we are not taking military action to solve the Ukrainian problem,” and, reiterated, “I think it is very important to recognize that a military solution to this problem is not going to be forthcoming.”
Obama knows invasion is a "fightin' word," as they used to say in old Hollywood Westerns. And he knows -- and we all know -- a shootout in the Ukraine corral against the world's other great nuclear power would be beyond foolish. But under the circumstances, even such a stalwart of administration policymaking as Ivo Daalder has run out of patience with the vague language coming out of Foggy Bottom and the White House. Daalder doesn’t recommend military action, certainly, but he does recommend NATO members step up their defense spending and deploy their vast military resources throughout the alliance in a way that makes the threat of force more credible. After all, Putin has shown his imperial appetite knows no bounds, and the tactics he's used to shave off portions of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine could be turned on the NATO-member Baltics. Daalder also calls on Western countries to supply advance weapons and a steady stream of intelligence to Kiev. And finally the U.S. and the E.U. need to impose full-scale economic sanctions on Moscow.
“Let’s be clear: Russia has invaded Ukraine,” Daalder wrote in the Financial Times on Thursday. “We can debate the reasons. But we can no longer debate the fact.”
—With Tracy McNicoll in Mons, Belgium