World

5 Neocon 'Solutions' That Could Spark Catastrophe in Ukraine

Hawks in the Republican and Democratic parties are pining to escalate the Ukraine crisis.

The neoconservatives and the more aggressive hawks in Congress have turned their attention away from Iran and al Qaeda and toward their new (old) enemy: Russia.  

Always desperate for a way to justify inflated national security budgets and aggressive military intervention overseas, hawks in the Republican and Democratic parties are pining for a sharp escalation over the Ukraine crisis. They’re looking to punish Russia in ways that could turn a political crisis into an outright catastrophe, and are turning back the clock to the Cold War in their demonization of all things Russian.

President Barack Obama has initiated a non-military U.S. counterattack against Russia’s incursion into Crimea—itself a response to what amounts to a coup in Ukraine that deposed a pro-Russian leader.  But he has not escalated the crisis to an out-of-control point, though the U.S. bears some responsibility for starting the debacle by supporting a protest movement that removed a democratically elected leader. Obama has revoked visas from about a dozen Russian officials, suspended meetings in preparation for the Group of 8 summit in Sochi, Russia and canceled trade talks and military consultations with the Kremlin.

Further steps are being contemplated in the House and the Senate, like sanctions on Russian companies and a loan program for the new, pro-Western Ukraine government, which also includes officials from a right-wing fascist party. Tensions could heat up on March 16, when the residents of Crimea—the largely pro-Russian territory Russian forces are exerting control over—vote on whether to join the Russian Federation.  

The seemingly deliberative moves taken by the Obama administration are hardly enough for those bent on escalating with Russia. They are busy wildly screaming that it’s 1938 all over again, when the Munich agreement gave Adolf Hitler carte blanche to annex parts of Czechoslovakia. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also claimed that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s action are akin to Hitler’s pre-World War II moves. The neocons are smearing Obama as weak for not doing what they want him to do, claiming that Obama’s refusal to bomb Syria led Putin to believe he could invade Ukraine with little consequence.

"The combination of zero action on Syria despite our own declared 'red line' and the weakening of the American military sent a dangerous message, and not just to Putin. That makes it all the more important that we make Putin and Russia pay today," wrote prominent neocon Elliot Abrams, a former Reagan and Bush official. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumself sounded a similar note in an interview with Fox News. "We have created a leadership vacuum in the world, and it is being filled by the Putins of the world, by people without our values or our interest, and it’s to the detriment of the United States and our friends and allies around the world. It is the United States that’s injected that instability into the world equation," he said.

Senator John McCain lamented that the U.S. can’t go to war with Russia. “I wish that there were [a military option]. … I do not see a military option and it’s tragic,” the hawkish Republican said.

But that reality hasn’t stopped neoconservatives from calling for a variety of measures that could make the standoff in Ukraine spin wildly out of control. Here are five ideas that could inflame the Russia-US standoff.

1. Missile defense on Russia’s border. Leave it to theWall Street Journal opinion pages to distill the neocon perspective. In a March 11 article, the Journal published an article saying that “the right response to a Russian power play is a power play of our own. Ballistic missile defenses on NATO’s eastern flank would be a good place to start.”  

That idea has also been bolstered by Republican Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC), always a reliable hawkish voice. “If I were President Obama, I would reengage Poland and the Czech Republic regarding missile defense,” Graham said on CNN. Democratic Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) agreed with that prescription.

Graham, Durbin and the WSJ are referring to an abandoned plan to place land-based missile defense systems in the Czech Republic and Poland, which borders Russia. First initiated by the Bush administration as a way to counter the threat from Iranian missiles, it was abandoned by the Obama administration in 2009 as the U.S. sought to repair damaged relations with Russia. The plan was viewed by Russia as a big threat, just the latest U.S. and European move to encroach on the country militarily.

2. Georgia into NATO. The last major Russian-U.S. crisis occurred in this Caucasus country in 2008, when a Georgian-provoked war unleashed chaos. U.S.-backed Georgian forces attacked and committed war crimes in South Ossetia, a region that wanted to stay autonomous from Georgia. Many residents had Russian citizenship and want to stay close to Russia.

After the dust of the war settled, Russia had effectively taken control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, though the majority of countries don’t recognize that move.

Now, with Ukraine in the foreground, some are calling for Georgia to be accepted into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Cold War-era military alliance designed to combat the former Soviet Union. At one NATO meeting in 2008, officials floated the prospect of Ukraine and Georgia joining the alliance—which is obligated to militarily respond if any member is attacked.

That didn’t happen, but the idea is still very much a favorite of hawks. The conservative National Review printed an article recently calling for NATO to accept the two countries as a response to Russia’s moves in Ukraine, which could easily set the stage for an explosive confrontation between the U.S. and Russia.

Michael Cecire, an analyst who studies Georgia, made a similar call in Foreign Policy magazine.

What these analysts ignore is that those moves would be part of what Russia sees as a decades-long march to contain and deter Russia in its own backyard. As Stephen Cohen, one of the foremost Russia experts in the U.S., explained to Newsweek: “We’re like a Western Pac-man heading East, gobbling up all the way until we hit Russia’s border.” Cohen warned that “we are on the cusp of war with Russia.”

3. Military exercises near Russia. This is an idea hawks have called for, and the U.S. is taking heed. A U.S. Navy destroyer is set to take part in exercises with Romanian and Bulgarian warships in the Black Sea, close to Crimea.

In Poland, U.S. fighter planes are also expected to take place in exercises. These trainings are being beefed up in response to the crisis in Ukraine. Separately, NATO deployed two reconnaissance planes in Ukraine to monitor the Russian military, while Ukraine’s U.S.-backed government is engaging in military exercises in a show of force.

4. Military assistance to Ukraine. Former Vice President Dick Cheney was a key architect of the Iraq war, the neoconservatives’ wet dream that quickly turned into a nightmare. But his past failures in military adventurism have done little to temper his appetite for more.

Speaking on CBS’ Face the Nation March 9, Cheney said the U.S. should “offer military assistance in terms of equipment, training, and so forth to the Ukrainians themselves.” Cheney also lamented the fact that Obama took options off the table by ruling out using the military.

Those moves would embroil the U.S. in the Ukraine-Russia dispute. Once something goes wrong—say shots fired by Russian or Ukrainian forces—it’s very easy to see how things could spiral into chaos.

5. Encourage Russians to revolt against Putin. Perhaps the most fantastical idea to come out of neoconservative quarters is the Wall Street Journal’s hope that the revolt in Kiev will spark an uprising in Russia against Putin. As the Nation’s Robert Dreyfuss noted, the Journal “suggests that the battle of Ukraine be carried directly into Russia itself.”

The editorial from the Wall Street Journal states: “Kiev's best revenge would be to become an inspiration for Russia's freedom fighters.” Translated, that means the Journal would love to see Russians pour into the streets to overthrow Putin.

It’s extremely unlikely that would happen. While Putin has embarked on a series of repressive and anti-democratic measures, he still retains massive popularity.

Alex Kane is former World editor at AlterNet. His work has appeared in Mondoweiss, Salon, VICE, the Los Angeles Review of Books and more. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.