Crisis in Ukraine

Obama Must Show He’ll Use Military Means to Deter Russia in Ukraine

To deter Putin and other aggressors, diplomatic and economic slaps are not enough; the U.S. needs a military dimension.


Don’t pop the champagne corks just yet because Vladimir Putin phoned Barack Obama to pursue diplomacy on Ukraine and environs. It may be just a ploy, like Moscow’s proposal to denude Syria of chemical weapons to head off a potent U.S. air strike against President Assad’s forces. It may just be a gambit to tamp down the West’s drive toward greater sanctions against Russia. And all sinister explanations of the call gain weight by the fact that some 25,000 Russian troops still threaten Ukraine’s borders.

Even if Putin is serious about diplomacy for the moment, there is a deeper problem afoot for Obama. It is one that the White House rejects outright, but one that officials outside the White House and experts outside the administration are certainly fretting about. It is that Obama’s idea of combating aggression essentially by means of economic sanctions and “diplomacy” is not nearly enough, that the costs of aggression have to be raised, and that there has to be a stronger and more credible military dimension to U.S. national security policy. Whether the White House admits it or not, foes the world over seem to have concluded that Obama has taken the U.S. military force option off the table and made aggression easier.

In that vein, take a second look at what Obama said last Wednesday about a Russian attack on Ukraine: “Of course, Ukraine is not a member of NATO, in part because of its close and complex history with Russia. Nor will Russia be dislodged from Crimea or deterred from further escalation by military force.” That sounds awfully close to telling Putin that if he wants to grab more of Ukraine or all of it he need not worry about a U.S. military response. In effect, the U.S. president is saying that the only cost to Russia for totally violating the basic rules of international behavior is the threat of tougher sanctions (and this only if the Europeans and others can get their act together). Why on earth would Obama give Putin this virtual free ride?

Did the White House fear that unless the Ukrainians felt totally abandoned they might be foolhardy enough to actually precipitate a war with Russia? If this was the White House’s worry, Obama could have warned Ukrainian leaders publicly and privately that their only chance of help from the West was to make it absolutely clear that Moscow was the guilty party.

When Obama said that the United States would do nothing militarily to protect Ukraine against an attack, he was in effect walking away from the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 signed by Ukraine, Russia, Britain and America. By this paper, Ukraine gave back its nuclear weapons to Russia on a pledge by all parties not to violate Ukraine’s security and sovereignty. To be sure, neither London nor Washington was legally obliged to defend Ukraine if attacked. But it is perfectly obvious that Kiev never would have given up its nukes unless it believed the U.S. would come to its defense in some meaningful fashion.

The Budapest document makes sense historically only as a quid pro quo agreement resting upon American credibility to act. The United States cannot simply walk away from the plain meaning of the Budapest Memorandum and leave Ukraine in the lurch. And how would this complete washing of U.S. hands affect U.S. efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, supposedly a top national priority? Why should any nation forego nukes or give them away like Ukraine, if other nations, and especially the U.S., feel zero responsibility for their defense? It’s not that Washington has to send ground troops or start using its nuclear weapons; it’s just that potential aggressors have to see some potential military cost.

It’s bad enough that Obama thinks of the U.S. response to Russia in Ukraine almost exclusively in terms of diplomatic isolation of the bad guy, plus economic sanctions such as they are or might be, and a touch of military aid. But the real worry is that this has become his pattern worldwide.

If potential aggressors come to think that their power grabs will be met solely by diplomatic harassment and some economic squeezing, they will be tempted increasingly to snatch whatever they want first and worry later. Greedy lawbreakers have been emboldened by Obama’s unenforced “red lines” in Syria. Same goes for North Korean rockets landing on South Korean lands without serious penalty. And the same holds for China’s new pattern of muscle flexing to establish its interests in the East and South China Seas. Ukraine only reinforces the pattern.

Economic sanctions are a good tool, but not a substitute for a credible military option. Even potent economic sanctions over decades have not brought Cuba, Iran, and North Korea to their knees. Russia will be even more difficult to break with economic sanctions because it is the eighth largest economy in the world.

How can the U.S. add muscle in the present Ukraine crisis?

The boldest and riskiest course would be to dispatch 50 or 60 of the incredibly potent F-22s to Poland plus Patriot batteries and appropriate ground support and protection. Russian generals and even Putin surely know that the F-22s could smash the far inferior Russian air force and then punish Russian armies invading eastern Ukraine or elsewhere in the region.

There’s no sense at all in making this move unless Obama unambiguously resolves to use the F-22s. The worst thing to do is bluff. Nor would the dangers end there even if Obama were not bluffing; Putin might think he was bluffing anyway and start a war. With all these complications and risks, the Obama team still should give this option a serious look—and let Russia and our NATO partners know this tough course is under serious consideration. Obama has sent a few F-15’s and F-16’s to Eastern Europe, some military aid to Ukraine and other states. But everyone knows this is tokenism.

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Another plausible and perhaps less risky measure: help prepare Ukrainians for guerrilla war against an invading Russian force. Pound for pound in conventional war, the Ukrainian forces are no match whatsoever for the Russians. But irregular Ukrainian troops armed with first-class rifles, mortars, and explosive devices would do Russian troops great damage. Russians know this. They have surely not forgotten the horrors fighting guerrillas in Afghanistan.

These steps would be plausible, purely defensive, and a deterrent for starters. They would demonstrate to Moscow that further aggression against Ukraine would result in much more than economic and diplomatic slaps. Credible force has been the missing ingredient in U.S. policy. Support for what might be the Ukrainian Resistance, combined with an F-22 deployment to Poland “to protect U.S./NATO security interests in the region,” should give Putin pause. And this approach would make the dictators in Pyongyang, Damascus, and Beijing think twice now as well.