The image of Russian tanks advancing through southeastern Ukraine should be deeply embarrassing to Americans.
Not because Ukraine is of such vital national interest; not because the fate of liberty at home hinges on Luhansk or Donetsk; but because it is very clear that Putin (as well as Bashar Assad, Egyptian President Sissi, the Iranian Supreme Leader, Chinese Premier Li, the Saudi royal family, Bibi Netanyahu, Shinzo Abe, Angela Merkel, virtually every other major world leader, and probably a plurality of his family members) simply does not really care what the President of the United States thinks.
In his Thursday press conference on two of the currently unfolding crises, President Obama refused to call the Russian invasion an invasion. “Invasion” presumably implies action; instead, it was a “continuation of what’s been taking place for months now,” which is actually more embarrassing than delineating this as a singular one-off. He and other world leaders will be discussing this issue at the NATO summit next week, but Obama was upbeat about the situation over all: “I think that the sanctions we’ve already applied have been effective.” Despite, well, the evidence.
To be fair, the fact that economic sanctions have not altered Russian behavior is not really Obama’s fault. They were never going to be enough. Effective sanctions would require whole-hearted European support, and since Europe’s economy is heavily dependent on Russian energy, major players like Germany will not impose the kind of sanctions regime that ultimately brought Iran to the bargaining table, relatively speaking.
Because of Europe’s dependency, an effective Russia policy simply has to supplement the limited costs of economic sanctions with some other kind of costs. Usually, this is where military aid would come in. But the Obama Administration has steadfastly refused to send Ukraine weapons, arguing that arming the Ukrainians might lead to Russian escalation and in any case will not change Russia’s overwhelming military superiority.
It’s a little nonsensical, because Russia’s perfectly willing to escalate anyway; and if helping our friends resist stronger foes doesn’t change anything fundamental, then…why do we help anybody? Why do we even have friends? Why not just accept Russian and Chinese domination over Eurasia and go home?
In one sense, though, the Administration’s right. Nobody believes Taiwan, for example, can defeat China in a war. Nor can Georgia defeat Russia. But arming Taiwan raises the cost of Chinese military action without committing American troops. It’s a deterrent. And NATO’s deterrent to Russian aggression along its borders has simply fallen apart.
That’s not because its conventional forces have declined, though they have. Rather, it’s because Russia rightfully believes that there is a less-than-zero percent chance that conventional NATO forces will be used in Ukraine, guaranteeing Moscow military superiority. Fair enough: neither Ukraine nor Georgia is a member of NATO. Still, there’s clearly some Western interest in their defense. So what would an effective Ukrainian deterrent that doesn’t include NATO’s conventional forces look like?
At the most fundamental level, NATO must help Russia’s neighbors adapt to the fact that they are militarily weak and dwarfed by Russia’s might. Thus they need to be able to fight the insurgent fight, like the Taliban, or ideally like the hybrid guerilla-conventional force combination that Hezbollah debuted against Israel in 2006.
It’s actually somewhat baffling that an alliance which has spent nearly the past decade-and-a-half battling insurgents in an asymmetric war has no visible insurgent capability of its own. Maybe that’s because US military power is so disproportionate that it never considers itself to be outgunned. It’s particularly baffling that Russia’s neighbors haven’t come to this conclusion on their own.
Their situation is certainly not new. The immense imbalance of power in Eastern Europe has been a standing feature of the international system for the past two hundred years, excepting a jovial interlude with Uncle Boris Yeltsin in the 1990’s. Many of these states have also been engaged into serious American counterinsurgency campaigns over the past thirteen years. They have been among our most willing and effective partners: Poland in particular has carried more than its share of the weight.
It should long ago have been standard practice for countries bordering Russia – whether or not they aspired to NATO membership – to adopt some insurgent defense strategies. But they mostly haven’t. Part of that is our fault: the United States has somewhat myopically been training small armies like Georgia’s into deployable counterinsurgency brigades. That didn’t turn out too well for Georgia in 2008. Georgia and Ukraine – and possibly nations like Latvia – need to have militaries that reflect some of their own security concerns, not just ours.
No, Ukraine can’t defeat Russia in a tank battle. It has to impose costs some other way. NATO has been bearing those costs for the past thirteen years; the least it could do is show the Ukrainians how to pass them on. So that the next time Russia plays its unidentified troops and tanks into Ukraine, unidentified insurgents might start blowing things up. The way they do everywhere else.
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