A Dirty Little Secret of U.S. Foreign Policy on Crimea: There's Not Much We Can Do
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If there is one thing the foreign policy community agrees about these days, it’s that President Obama must do moar to stand up to Vladimir Putin.
Moar as in “more” plus “roar”. As in more “military options”; lots ofmilitary options; more pipeline construction and natural gas sales to European countries; more missile defense and more “voice(s) of freedom” from American lips. We need more strong leadership and more retroactive bombing of Syria; less talk and more rock; definitely less projected weakness. And while we’re at it, less “dangerous naiveté” and “blinding righteousness”.
How about more NATO forces in the Baltic States? More NATO troops in Eastern Europe? Even more deployment of nuclear forces in NATO countries bordering Russia? (Wait, what was that about nuclear missiles?) More US troops in Afghanistan, more help for the rebels in Syria, more money for the defense budget. More countries, like Georgia, in NATO, because what’s one more nation fitting snugly under America’s nuclear umbrella? Oh, and definitely more aid to Ukraine.
To the outside observer all of this might seem like a bit of threat-mongering, mixed with alarmism and topped with a dollop of craziness. But, hey, this is a Very Serious Crisis. After all, as the Hill’s Defense blog tells us, “If there is a new cold war with Russia, many observers believe the US is losing it.” (“Many observers” is apparently how the kids today describe people who don’t know what happened in the actual Cold War.)
So if things are quite as bad as they seem, clearly the US needs to be firing up the jets, oiling the tanks, mobilizing the troops and starting to organize a freedom armada for Crimea.
Not so fast, says the moar crowd. “We don’t want military action” in Crimea, says Rand Paul. “We should be exceedingly reluctant to employ US military force,” says Ted Cruz. Even Area Unrepentant War-Monger Dick Cheney says “there are military options that don’t involve putting troops on the ground in Crimea”.
Indeed, one is hard-pressed to find a single person in Washington who believes the US should send actual American soldiers to Ukraine – even if Russia truly escalates the crisis and send its troops into Eastern Ukraine.
All of which raises a quite serious and legitimate question: what the hell are we arguing about?
If the US is not prepared to put troops on the ground? If we’re not willing to use military force? If we’re content with taking the biggest tool in the US toolbox off the table, then how exactly is the United States supposed to reverse Russia’s seizure of the Crimea? Our vast military capabilities won’t mean much to Putin if he knows we aren’t willing to use them.
Here’s the dirty little secret of the foreign-policy pundit/expert orgy on what to do about Crimea: the US has at its disposal very few levers with which to change Russia’s behavior, at least in the near-term. We can cancel multilateral summits and military training (already done); we can deny visas to Russian officials (just beginning); we can even ramp up bilateral economic sanctions and try to build support among key European allies for a larger, more invasive sanctions regime (underdiscussion).
But as our long effort to bring Iran to the negotiating table over its nuclear ambition reminds us, such steps will take time and diplomatic effort to bring results. They won’t offer the guarantee of a satisfactory result, and they could produce significant economic backlash for US companies – and, more directly, US allies.
In the end, we’re stuck arguing over policy responses that largely dance around the margins, and a situation in which Europe’s actions likely matter more than America’s.
The many calls for Obama to do more mask a difficult reality for US policymakers: we are not nearly as powerful as we’d often like to believe. Calls for a greater US response to Putin’s military provocations assume a degree of omnipotence in US foreign policy – and an ability to shape foreign events – that simply doesn’t exist, and never really has. And it ignores the complete disinterest among Americans to get involved.
In the end, while violations of international sovereignty merit a forceful response, whether Crimea is part of Ukraine or part of Russia will have little enduring impact on US national security – just as Russia’s invasion of Georgia (much bemoaned at the time by the moar crowd) did little to impact US strategic interests. So long as NATO exists as the guarantor of European peace and security – and serves as a deterrent to any further Russian ambitions – we’ll be fine. If anything, it’s Russia that will suffer, from greater diplomatic and economic isolation.
Of course, that doesn’t quite work for the moar crowd. They want results now – and they want a result that they can call “victory”. That is, until they lose interest or find some new foreign crisis over which to hyperventilate – and then the cycle we’ve seen over the past few weeks on Ukraine will merely repeat itself.