For the past two days, the situation in Ukraine has dominated the White House daily press briefings like no story in recent (or not-so-recent) memory, and as is usually the case when the press corps makes such a unanimous run at a story, there has been precious little news to show for it. On Tuesday, White house Press Secretary Jay Carney reiterated President Obama's contention that there is no military solution to the Ukraine crisis, but did, on several occasions, leave the door open to providing Ukraine's military with nonlethal aid.
Our current posture, and that favored by Republicans, offers many of the risks of military intervention, without any of the benefits. Generally speaking, the Republican response has been to urge arming of Ukrainian military forces (and, for some reason, a decades-long plan to export fossil fuels to Europe) and a nebulous appeal to "show strength" without actually doing anything, while the Obama administration has focused on international sanctions, but has also deployed a destroyer to the Black Sea as a show of strength that can't actually do anything.
Well, that's not exactly true. What that destroyer, the USS Donald Cook, can act as a magnet for Russian provocation, like the 90-minute "I'm not touching you, does this bug you?" attack it endured from a Russian fighter jet. That incident exposed both the risk and the emptiness of this show of force, because it could easily have escalated into an act of war between Russia and the United States, but that ship, or a hundred ships, could not help the Ukrainian military if tens of thousands of Russian troops decide to invade eastern Ukraine. We're not going to start shelling Ukraine, and Vladimir Putin knows it. We risk either being drawn into a war with Russia or backing down to Russian aggression, without any possible benefit.
This is the essence of the Ukraine crisis. The West is hoping that Vladimir Putin won't risk going to war over Ukraine, while Putin is absolutely certain he won't have to. Using the same mixture of pretense and aggression that netted him Crimea and a Super Bowl ring, Putin will ease on into Ukraine, and worry about the sanctions later. Once he's there, the impetus belongs to Europe and the United States to decide if they want to start a war with Russia over Ukraine.
The best chance of preventing Russia from invading is to place the decision to go to war over Ukraine in Vladimir Putin's hands. Putin gets to pretend that his provocations are not provocations, and the United States should do the same. If Ukraine were to invite U.S. and allied military forces, apropos of nothing and purely coincidentally, to participate in military exercises along Ukraine's eastern border. Nothing provocative about that, Vlad, we're just doing some P90X over here, but if you decide to march into Ukraine, it coincidentally appears you'll have to go through us.
There would be risks and costs associated with such a plan, not the least of which is that maybe Putin is just crazy enough to do it, but his actions thus far have been those of a craven bully who relies on a weak target, and the inaction of those with the strength to stand up to him. He has obviously made the calculation that Russia has the leverage to wait out sanctions, but as President Obama has pointed out, Russia is not the superpower that the Soviet Union was. While the West won't go to war to get Russia out of Ukraine, Russia just as certainly won't start a war to go in.
The problem is that there is no political will to take this sort of action, from either side. Republicans want to engage in meaningless, yet profitable, exercises in "showing strength," while the United States and Europe are making a show of diplomacy which, at best, will result in Putin keeping Crimea, and at worst, taking power in Ukraine by force. The public doesn't have any stomach for military action, partially because such action is mainly described in terms of bombing or starting a war, and doesn't think Ukraine is our problem. The left and the right agree, and are only splitting hairs between degrees of dick-waving, while calling each other "warmonger" and "weakling," respectively.
But there are greater things at stake here than Russia's ability to directly threaten the United States, or the West's direct interests in Ukraine. As part of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, the United States promised, along with Russia, that Ukraine would not be threatened with force if they gave up their nukes. On a fundamental level, such a promise from the United States must be honored, simply because it's the right thing to do. There's no addendum on there saying "and if you are threatened with force, we will really give it the old college try, for reals."
From a liberal standpoint, though, allowing Russia to invade Crimea, let alone eastern Ukraine, threatens every U.S. diplomatic effort, particularly those involving nuclear weapons. In our efforts to negotiate over other nations' nuclear programs, like Iran's, we will have to make assurances similar to the one we gave Ukraine, and if we show those assurances to be empty, if we cash that check with diplomatic Bitcoins, what chance do those efforts have? More broadly, what weight will any security assurance by the United States carry if we leave Ukraine to the tender mercies of Vladimir Putin's tolerance for sanctions? Liberals mock conservatives for their reflexive reliance on saber-rattling, but the left's knee-jerk framing of any military action as "warmongering" can be destructive as well. This is an example of the need to achieve peace through strength, the real kind.
John F. Kennedy didn't send a naval blockade to Cuba to start a war, he did it to prevent one. If Russia had been allowed to park nuclear missiles 90 miles away from the U.S., the consequences to nuclear proliferation would have been devastating. As luck would have it, we have a pretty good idea of how effective sanctions would have been had that happened. If doing the right thing isn't reason enough, then preventing a new nuclear arms race ought to be.