Sometime last Thursday, our intelligence community was telling its bosses that there was little or no chance that Russian President Putin would order his troops to seize control of Ukraine. These are the same guys that are telling us that Iran isn’t building nuclear weapons.
Fortunately, I have better sources. My friend Matt Keegan is a Russia expert and a serious student of their military. On Friday, Matt emailed me to point what should be in the front of the minds of President Obama and the other naïfs trying to figure out what was (and is) going on.
First, he said, Russia wants to control Ukraine because it believes it needs a land bridge to its strategic naval base at Sevastopol on the Black Sea. (The base has been there for about 200 years. When the Evil Empire fell apart, Russia began renting it from Ukraine.) He also pointed out that there are about eight major gas pipeline routes from Russia through Ukraine to reach Europe and Sevastopol. Without controlling Ukraine, Russia risks Ukrainian tariffs on gas or even pipeline sabotage. All of which meant, he said, that the Russians would send military forces into Ukraine to control some or all of that nation.
When we spoke on Friday, Keegan pointed out that the pictures of the Russian troops who had seized control of the major airports in Crimea showed that there were no magazines in their weapons. These guys were not the “junior varsity,” he said. He knew they weren’t “militia troops,” because they “showed significant discipline inconsistent with a small isolated paramilitary group that is in a threat zone. These professionals felt little or no threat, and knew how to behave to maintain a calmer presence.” By Saturday the photos showed troops that had seized most of the Crimean peninsula. All of them had their rifle magazines in place, ready to fire.
When Obama spoke on Friday, he said he was “deeply concerned” about Russian actions and added that “there would be costs for any military intervention.” What those costs were, Obama didn’t say. He later diluted that statement, saying we’d talk to other countries to see what the costs might be. (Which means there won’t be any.)
Saturday was a big day for Obama-style diplomacy. President Obama had what the Washington Post reported was a “tense” 90-minute conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the conversation Obama said that Russia’s failure to return their troops to bases in Ukraine would “impact Russia’s standing in the international community.” Chuckie Hagel said, “This could be a very dangerous situation if this continues in a provocative way.” Just how an invasion could be a non-provocative act he didn’t say.
Hours later, Putin ordered Russian troops to seize control of the places essential to control the Crimea. He also got permission from the Russian rubber-stamp parliament to send in more troops anywhere in Ukraine he’d like them to go.
As this is being written, hundreds of masked troops — almost certainly Russian special operations troops — are surrounding Ukrainian military bases in the Crimea. So far, Putin hasn’t gone farther but masses of Russian troops on the border aren’t planning a vacation near the seaside resort of Balaclava where the Brits came a’ cropper. (See Tennyson, Alfred E.)
We can’t yet see how far Putin will go. He may content himself with the Crimea or he may want to seize Kiev and put his boy, Yanukovych, back in control. The length and breadth of the pipeline network argues for wider intervention, as does Russia’s land access to Sevastopol. In short, there’s a lot at stake here, not just for the Russians but for America and Europe as well.
The stakes include Russia’s ability to act in blatant violation of the 1994 agreement it signed with the United States, Britain, and Ukraine without suffering any consequences. The agreement requires the parties to respect the sovereignty and borders of Ukraine. It also requires them to “refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine,” and to not to blackmail Ukraine with economic weapons.
Though it’s not a real treaty, the agreement isn’t meaningless. It’s not a mutual defense treaty obligating us to go to war to defend Ukraine. It’s not a guarantee of Ukraine’s borders or neutrality, which was the sort of agreement that Britain, France, and Germany went to war over in 1914. But its breach should have some effect, such as the sanctions against Russia we’ll get to in a minute.
1994 was a year in which Russia had just begun to catch its breath after the fall of the Berlin Wall. At the time it was signed, the agreement wasn’t believed to be more than a photo op intended to make Bill Clinton look respectable (at least for a moment). Since 1994, however, Russia has become much stronger and Obama’s bluffs aren’t working on Putin.
On Thursday, Ukraine’s new Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatseniuk, called on the United Nations Security Council and the agreement’s parties to help defend Ukraine’s territorial integrity or whatever is left of it.
Ukraine has ordered a full mobilization of its troops. Russia will find that they are not a force that can be ignored, but if Putin chooses all-out war the Ukrainians will be defeated. Putin is most likely to consolidate his gains in the Crimea and try to restore Yanukovych or another puppet to power in Kiev over the next several months. Without any response from America and NATO, he’ll have plenty of time to do that and more.
We will not — and should not — go to war to defend Ukraine. Sending ships into the Black Sea is a foolish idea that could only come from neocon interventionists such as Lindsey Graham (and it has). But there are things we can and should do. If you believe we should do more, read on. If you want to read what we will do, stop here. Obama won’t do anything that will offend Putin any more than Boehner would do anything to offend Obama.
If an American president actually had any knowledge of geopolitics and diplomacy, if he wanted to put real pressure on the Russians, he could do a lot, and almost none of it has to do with the UN Security Council sideshow now playing in New York.
Such an American president would make a speech to the nation in which he would ask Congress for legislation imposing sanctions on Russia that would bar any banking transactions between Russian and American banks. That would bring the Russian economy to a crashing halt. He would also ask for trade sanctions against Russia and to bar travel to the U.S. of any Russians involved in the Ukraine takeover. The 1994 agreement promised no one would conduct economic war against Ukraine. For violating the agreement, Russia should have the tables turned on it.
In that speech, the American president would recall the days when nations such as Ukraine suffered under the yoke of Communism. He would recall every act of Russian oppression of its satellites from the 1956 Hungarian Revolution onward. Lech Walesa’s heroism in Poland would be worthy of special praise. The president would name the heroes of those oppressions and name the Soviet oppressors who were guilty of the acts of oppression. He would recall the hopes that rose in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell and condemn those who believe that the fall of the Soviet Union was — as Putin said — one of the great tragedies of the 20th century.
The president would then — again naming names — talk about the heroes of Ukraine’s revolt against Yanukovych and how the hope of freedom cannot be ignored by freedom-loving people all over the world. It would be important to make very clear that the Ukrainians didn’t mistake it for a call to arms, because — again — we wouldn’t go to war over Ukrainian freedom.
That is how American presidents interested in defending freedom speak.
If our president had diplomatic skills, similar actions would be asked for in meetings with our NATO allies. Some — like Britain because it signed the 1994 agreement — might join in. British Prime Minister David Cameron should be asked to address the European Union and ask for similar action. The EUnuchs won’t do anything but they should have to see, first hand, how we are unafraid to speak in the defense of freedom.
Inevitably, we’ll participate in some manner in the UN charade. We know — and the Ukrainians know — that the Security Council won’t do a bloody thing because the Russians will veto any resolution offered against them. But our ambassador should make a speech that condemns the Security Council for — again — failing to deal with outright aggression.
But never mind. This is the Era of Obama. This president is not interested in defending freedom and has been conceding ground to its enemies since 2009.
This will get much worse. Ukrainians will fight, lives will be lost, and from Obama there will be thousands of words all of which will be meaningless and justly ignored.