HONOLULU, March 17, 2014 — Today, the Obama Administration responded to ongoing Russian occupation of Crimea with an executive order blocking government officials of the Russian Federation from all “property and interests in property that are in the United States.” While some observers have criticized the sanctions as being too weak, President Obama’s intentions are less about “punishing” and more about communicating U.S. frustrations over Crimea.
The Obama Administration knows all too well that historically Russia has always reserved the right to inject military power into neighboring states following political upheaval. Last month, when “heavily armed militia” began seizing key strategic locations in Crimea, one couldn’t help but think back to 1968 when Russian airborne troops dressed in civilian clothing responded to the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia by seizing Ruzyne International Airport. Much like today’s intervention in Ukraine, Soviet leaders in 1968 claimed to have been “invited” to occupy by way of a letter.
In 1979, Russia repeated its pattern when it invaded Afghanistan after political upheaval by using Soviet infantry dressed in Afghan uniforms to occupy major government and transportation hubs, opening the way for the rest of the Soviet military to follow.
In all three examples, Russia acted in a manner that caught local populations and the West largely by surprise, seizing the initiative and entrenching quickly. Historically, Russia’s interventions have taken decades to unravel, largely because Western powers have very little room to contest them.
Today, President Obama’s hands are tied in Ukraine because those closest to the crisis are either unwilling or unable to take the initiative to change the situation on the ground. Ukraine fell behind the power curve when Russian forces were allowed to surge into Crimea and no military response was taken.
While some argue that Ukraine has token military power in contrast to Russia, it should be remembered that in international statecraft, lack of opposition means tacit approval. The European Union also failed to enforce their own regional interests when it soft-peddled its response to Russia’s invasion, leaving the United States to be the “bad cop” in dealing with Putin.
Though Sunday’s referendum in Crimea is regarded by many Western leaders as a sham, the sheer act of a referendum makes the use of force to change the situation even less legitimate. The European Union has failed to lead and Putin has, like so many other Russian leaders, lead in their absence. In such a political environment, the Obama Administration is right to approach the crisis in measured, careful responses.
Consider for a moment a wild hypothetical scenario. What would have happened, by contrast, if Russia had tried to invade South Korea or Israel? No amount of Russian numerical or technological superiority, however overwhelming, would be able to stop the military forces of either of those small states from obliterating an invader.
One can’t help but think of the fictional Soviet General Orlov of James Bond movie fame who argued “the West is decadent and divided. It has no stomach to risk our atomic reprisals.” Putin didn’t intervene in Ukraine because he has no respect for Obama, but rather because he doesn’t respect the European Union and NATO as competent security umbrellas.
The late author Tom Clancy explored Western weakness in his novel Red Storm Rising, with an interesting fictional exchange between Politburo members. In debating a limited war to seize energy resources, Clancy depicts the Soviet Defense Minister boasting “NATO is not a strong alliance. It cannot be. The ministers bicker over each country’s defense contribution. Their peoples are divided and soft. They cannot standardize their weapons, and because of it, their supply situation is utter chaos. And their most important, most powerful member is separated from Europe by five thousand miles of ocean.”
Fiction has now become reality in 2014. Why won’t Obama do anything substantive in Ukraine? Because, as always, Europe can’t do anything.