‘Green Men’ Returning to Ukraine

If you haven’t noticed, Team Obama’s policy of “isolating” Russia for its bad behavior in Ukraine isn’t going very well. Indeed, one could say the approach is not only failing, but terribly so.

Russia’s on a roll.

First, NATO reports that Russian forces — troops, artillery, tanks and air defense systems — recently moved across the border into Ukraine despite a September “cease-fire” between Kiev and pro-Russia rebels.

Of course, Russia denies that these “green men” (soldiers without insignia) are members of its forces at all, but instead are “volunteers,” which eerily smacks of China’s term for its troops in the Korean War.

Indeed, it’s very likely that unless Kiev retreats back into Moscow’s orbit, meaning veering away from a close association with the West, Russia under Vladimir Putin will continue to destabilize eastern Ukraine, where some 4,000 have already died.

In other words, eastern Ukraine will be held hostage until Moscow gets what it wants from Kiev — that is, strategic subservience.

And if the Kremlin remains unsatisfied, Russia may officially annex eastern Ukraine as it did with Crimea, or make it a de facto client state as it did with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which were part of Georgia.

We’ve seen this Russian “movie” before — both during the Cold War in Eastern Europe and post-Cold War in Georgia after it flirted with the West and NATO. If we’re not careful, we’ll see a re-run.

Regardless of whether they are accurate, Russian perceptions of security based on its history dictate the need for buffer states between it and a possible foe (e.g., NATO). Perception is reality after all — for the Russians or anyone else.

Russia is busting out of isolation elsewhere, too. NATO reports Russia is sending nuclear-capable forces to Crimea. It has already done so in Kaliningrad, a swath of land between the Baltic States and Poland.

Moscow has seemingly upped air patrols along the periphery of Europe and the United States. It also plans to start long-range strategic bomber flights to the Caribbean and Latin America, visiting Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, according to Moscow.

Russia reportedly has a ship in the South China Sea and is looking at port access in Vietnam (again); it also has a flotilla floating off Australia in advance of the G20 meeting there. Plus, news accounts indicate the Russian navy recently tested intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The signal is clear: After a few bad decades, Russia is ready to rumble.

The West’s disjointed strategy of rebuke, finger-wagging and some not-painful-enough economic sanctions don’t seem to be doing the trick of taming an increasingly restless, growly Russian bear.

Indeed, Moscow doesn’t seem politically or economically lonely at all.

There are new energy deals with China for the sale of natural gas as well as negotiations with Iran, with Russia promising to build as many as six more nuclear reactors for Tehran.

Wrestling with Russia isn’t often easy, but it’s more difficult if you give Moscow the impression that you’re in the wrong weight class and really don’t want to be out on the mat at all.

 - Peter Brookes is a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Originally appeared in The Boston Herald