Eastern European Security & Implications for Russia

The Crime in Crimea

At least Hitler waited three years after hosting the Berlin games of 1936 before invading Poland; Putin couldn’t even wait a week before invading Ukraine. This captures that sad lunacy of what Putin’s administration has resorted two in the wake of popular upheaval that lead to the ousting of former President Yanukovich, in support of an anti-Kremlin administration. In this article, we will explore the causes for the severe miscalculation by President Putin; why Ukraine matters to the West (and East); what should be done in response to the destabilizing actions of the Kremlin; and how this crisis gives the U.S., and Europe a big opportunity to contain a constant source of frustration that is The Kremlin.

I. The Crime

First, we will argue that a crime has occurred in Crimea. While Russia maintains the right to safeguard its naval & intelligence presence at its naval base in Sebastopol (strategic access to the deep water port on the Black Sea and the Straight of Dardanelles), it does not have the right to move armed forces off its base without the appropriate clearance by administering Ukrainian officials that host the Russian base. By moving over 6,000 unmarked Russian troops off their bases and into Ukrainian territory, Russia has violated Ukrainian territorial sovereignty, leading to a violation of international law.

Plenty of nations, including the U.S., have seemingly violated best practices of international law in the pursuit of national strategic interests (think of Operation Just Cause and the invasion of Panama in 1989 to depose Manuel Noriega based on charges of drug trafficking and potential seizure/closure of the Panama Canal), or to safeguard their citizens (think of the invasion of Granada in 1986 when American medical students were put at risk by an anti-US government that took power in a coup). But the present Russian invasion of the Crimea is akin to the U.S. moving thousands of troops from its base in Guantanamo, Cuba and into the rest of the country on the pretext that newly minted American citizens are under threat, and in an effort to destabilize and overthrow the anti-Washington government Cuba; convenient but illegal and deplorable by the neighboring community.

While former President Yanukovich claims a coup d’état took place in Kiev ten days ago, it was in-fact a popular revolt that lead to him fleeing to Russia. While Russia claims to safeguard the interest of other ethnic Russians in the Crimea, these are Ukrainian nationals (although cheekily Russian agents are issuing new passports and identify cards to these locals, granting them rights as Russian citizens). And while Russia claims its national interests are under security or economic threat by the new provisional government in Kiev, it does not have a right to violate Ukrainian sovereignty in an un-provoked manner.

Simply put, Ukraine matters more to Russia than Russia matters to Ukraine. Ukraine buffers Russia’s southwest flank, it serves as a passageway for Russian oil & gas lines to EU markets, and it gives Russia access to a deep-water port on the Black Sea (note, Russia already has access to the Black Sea). Ukraine on the other hand sees more downside than upside in its relationship with Russia. While oil & gas transit fees are nice, they are insignificant relative to the wealth that could be generated given access to the European common market.

II. The Cause

But why would Putin & The Kremlin make this irrational calculation that could lead to an all-out war with Ukraine and possibly NATO? The saddest part is that Putin and the Kremlin are caught in a zero-sum game mentality of the past; they are attempting to acquire strategic choke points that would, in the future, grant them bargaining chips to protect themselves in the event the going gets tough; unfortunately for Russia, these acts simply isolate it further, and turn it into a pariah state, accelerating its eventual collapse.

Putin calculates that geographically crucial choke points are crucial for Russia’s long-term survivability (think of Kaliningrad between Poland & Lithuania, access to the Arctic, the Caucuses Mountains, and so on). Russia needs former Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) states it controls by proxy, and any state that steps out-of-line becomes an agent of the West (or East) and a target of the Kremlin. From the Kremlin’s point of view, capturing and protecting these choke points (be it illegally and temporarily) is a way of buying more time. Unfortunately, time is not on Russia’s side.

With over half of its economy dependent on oil & gas, and another quarter on metals & mining, Russia’s economy (at 15% the size of the U.S. and the E.U. respectively) is a falling behind at an increasing rate relative to bordering states like China. Without massive improvements to de-regulation, education, and integration into the world economy (namely WTO membership), it’s only a matter of time before Russia’s economy and society shrink to such a point that it is neither a top ten economy, nor has a population exceeding 100M. With nearly 20% of the world’s landmass under its control, the eventual collapse of the Russian state will lead to many resources starved states to chip away at Russia’s borders.

With these risks in mind, Putin & The Kremlin think with very tactful short-term interest in mind. They are, however, erratically gambling their long-term interests away. In the next section we will discuss why Ukraine matters to the West, and what can be done to capitalize on the opportunity at hand.

III. The Punishment

Presently, Putin has a strategic upper hand against his adversaries, namely Ukraine, NATO & The U.S. in that order. Putin reckons that: (1) Russia can take control of Crimea without firing a shot; (2) Russia can turn the economic screws on Kiev and destabilize the provisional government before May election; (3) Russia can re-install Yanukovich (or similar) with the backing of heavy firepower rolling through Kiev but with highly orchestrated fanfare to ensure good media coverage; (4) lastly, be forewarned all you others including: Georgia, Estonia, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Finland and Poland (note, there are three NATO members on that list).

The West, in response, has ruled out options instead of indicating that all options are on the table; namely, (1) no military presence in Ukraine in support of the provisional government; (2) no economic sanctions against Russia; (3) and no application of pressure against other Russian geographic interests. Without a Bush/Condi or Thatcher/Reagan presence in Washington, London or Berlin, the West will have to devise cleverer way of responding to the Russian aggression (think, calling a blockade a quarantine, and trading Jupiter missiles for Cuban ones).

Dean Acheson reminded Kennedy that the ‘Soviet respects only force,” and we need to place the same reminder onto Obama, Merkel, Cameron, Hollande, Harper, Tusk and yes, even Renzi. Make no mistake, there is no ‘handling’ of Putin to be done here (as Roosevelt so famously hypothesized about Stalin); Putin knows your number and has called your bluffs, President Obama and Prime Minister Merkel. The best course of action is to clearly remind your citizens why Ukraine matters to the West (and East), and what needs to be done to stop this blatant violation of international law and aggression in Europe, and implement a coherent response.

First, Ukraine’s sovereignty matters; if we allow Russia to invade Ukraine in violation of international law and treatise that Ukraine is party to, what does that say about the respect of national sovereignty elsewhere in Europe or Asia? Second, we (the U.S., and by proxy NATO), have a contractual obligation to safeguard Ukraine’s sovereignty as part of the agreement for having Ukraine get rid of its nuclear arsenal in the 1990’s. Third, an invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces would have a destabilizing political and economic impact on the region, including The E.U., Turkey, and the Caucuses. Fourth, these acts of aggression by the Russian administration put into question its reliability as a trade partner or even a regional source of a peace and stability; leading to greater militarization and risks of miscalculation throughout Eurasia. In short, Ukraine matters in the same way the any other state that fell to communism mattered during the Cold War; it raises the costs of democratic political freedom, economic liberty, and communal peace.

Now that we’ve established that Ukraine matters, lets identify what can be done to ensure that we diffuse the threat by Russia, and further, capitalize on the opportunity to bring about positive change in Russia.

First, let’s consider military options (the threat of use of force) to deter Russian aggression. The U.S. already has at least two naval ships in the Black Sea (preparing to evacuate American citizens from Sochi in the event of a terrorist attack), moving a greater naval presence to The Black Sea would send a clear signal to Kremlin that The U.S. and its allies are prepared to enforce its contractual obligations to safeguard Ukrainian sovereignty. In addition, NATO can request its members consider alert-ready status in the event that Russian forces threaten the sovereignty and economic interests of its member states. Note, the cost of these deterrent actions pale in comparison to the cost of aiding Ukrainian forces in the event of an all-shoot-out conflict in the streets of Kiev should Russian and proxy Russian troops take their fight all the way to the provisional government.

Politically, we have a wealth of options. Not only can the G8 summit in Russia be canceled, but Russia (by virtue of the Kremlin government) can also be deemed a pariah state; justifying its removal from the G8, no admission into the WTO, removal from the Artic Council and possibly it’s removal from the U.N. Security Council. These actions hit The Kremlin where it hurts (their perceived political clout). Pariah state status place Russia on par with North Korea and Iran. The most outraged and incensed the rest of the global community can be to Putin’s actions, the more ashamed of their actions the Kremlin will feel.

Lastly, the West has creative economic responses from which to rely on. The U.S. can extend application of the so-called Magnitsky Law to over 20,000 Russian citizens (Kremlin administrators and their relatives), and ask that Canada and its European partners do the same. The U.S. and Canada can communicate clearly their objective to be the leading, safe, secure and economical source of oil and gas to the world markets by 2020; removing European dependence on Russian gas within ten years. Lastly, the U.S. and a broad coalition of partners, including Japan, The E.U., Canada, South Korea and others can implement a targeted quarantine of Russian commercial vessels – seizing and diverting cargo that originates from elements within the Russian economy that are deemed too close to the Kremlin, and ask to enforce a financial embargo preventing trade in the Russian rubble, and letters of credit to select Russian enterprises. In short, raising the economic costs of global business for Russia accelerates the collapse of the rubble, capital flight from Russia, and the eventual regime change needed to make Russia over.

III. The Conclusion

The present political and economic system that has lead to more democracy presiding over the lives of more people, in addition to better economic conditions than ever before, is a result of our efforts to establish military deterrence, political governance and economic liberalization. These are political and economic systems that we, in the West, have a monopoly over. We’ve set up the political administering bodies to grant the right to use of force. We’ve set up the terms for every form of trade and transaction, from GATT/WTO, to SWIFT/BASEL, to GAAP. Lastly, we’ve set up the best practices for democratically elected, representative, and just forms of laws and governance. We benefit collectively from this ecosystem because we are prepared to enforce its use by raising the costs of non-compliance to states that refuse to play by the rules, and lowering them for states that play by the rules.

President Putin and his Kremlin allies have made a severe miscalculation that can result in the acceleration of their own demise (provided Western governments capitalize on the opportunity). By ensuring a uniform stance in response to the invasion of Ukraine, we can apply military, political, and economic pressure to get Russian military to back down, and the Russian public to recognize how worse they are under the boot of President Putin.

George Washington’s most memorable quote is ‘the administration of justice is the firmest pillar of government.’ We have the opportunity to apply justice in face of a violation of sovereignty & freedom – let us live up to the standards set forth by every man and woman who has stood before us to defend the rights of free peoples worldwide.


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