March 28, 2014 | Issue Brief on International Conflicts
After Russia’s illegal invasion, occupation, and subsequent annexation of Crimea, there is a concern that Moscow will not stop until all of Ukraine is under Russia’s control. By invading Crimea, the regime of President Vladimir Putin has made it impossible any longer to consider Russia a responsible nation or suitable partner for the United States in solving regional and strategic security issues. The U.S. should adopt a new long-term strategy that addresses protecting its vital interests against the irresponsible and illegal actions of Moscow.
Further Russian escalation, however, risks a wider war that could destabilize the transatlantic alliance. The U.S. should mitigate this risk even as it establishes a new long-term strategy to deal with a hostile and aggressive Russian regime. Most important, Washington should make absolutely clear to Putin that the U.S. will defend its NATO allies.
There is no telling whether Russia will invade the remainder of Ukraine. It might instead initiate a campaign of coercion and propaganda in Ukrainian oblasts that have large ethnic Russian populations where pro-Russian protests continue. This could become a serious problem for the new government in Kyiv, especially leading up to the elections in May. However, a full-blown invasion cannot be ruled out.
The U.S. should not wait for Moscow to make its next move but should act preemptively now by:
Ukraine does not enjoy the security guarantees afforded to NATO allies, but the U.S. has several military options available that do not include the immediate deployment of American forces into Ukraine. Putin understands force and the risks he incurs in widening the war. Should the situation take a turn for the worse and Russia move to annex more of Ukraine, the U.S. military and its allies have the ability to help organize, train, and support Ukrainian forces so that Ukraine would be better able to contest Russia’s move for a considerable time. But this type of effort takes planning to be effective.
Prior to further Russian aggression against Ukraine, the U.S. should send an appropriately structured team of military planners to work with Ukraine’s general staff. Supplies, equipment, or small arms should be sent only with some measure of confidence that the materials would help to stabilize Ukraine’s situation and not simply fall into Russia’s hands or those of Russian loyalists.
If Putin recklessly elects to commit additional illegal and aggressive actions, there is little of consequence the West can do to convince him to reverse course, but there are actions the U.S. can take to show that these actions are unacceptable:
Regardless of the outcome of the current crisis, President Obama’s strategy for dealing with Russia is beyond repair. Hopes that Russia would assist the U.S. in resolving difficult issues such as Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan were illusory. Further, it is now clear that Russia represents a credible threat to the peace and security of the transatlantic region. Indeed, many of the actions the U.S. needs to take should have been implemented after Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and its recent invasion of Crimea. The U.S. government should develop a new long-term strategy that includes:
Recent events have confirmed that the “Russian reset” is dead. Crimea is under the control of Moscow, and it does not appear that Russian troops will be leaving anytime soon. Russia has used the illegal referendum to justify its imperial annexation of part of a neighboring country. Russia’s behavior is a direct violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and a full invasion of the rest of the country should come at a high price for Russia both diplomatically and economically. Regardless of further aggression, the U.S. should change the way it deals with Moscow.
—James Jay Carafano, PhD, is Vice President of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies, E. W. Richardson Fellow, and Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies; Nile Gardiner, PhD, is Director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of the Davis Institute; Luke Coffey is Margaret Thatcher Fellow in the Thatcher Center; and Dakota Wood is Senior Research Fellow for Defense Programs in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy, a division of the Davis Institute, at The Heritage Foundation.