March 9, 2014

Cool It in Crimea: Time to Get Off Obama’s Back

by Hal Gershowitz

Comments Below


The overheated domestic partisan political rhetoric regarding the very dangerous Russian brinksmanship (and blinksmanship) in Crimea reminds us of a work of art we recently saw at an exposition in Southern California. It was a very large piece consisting of the words “Blah, Blah, Blah,” displayed in varying colors throughout the canvas.  “Blah, Blah, Blah” isn’t very helpful right now.

Our options, military and economic, are very limited. Events have, more than once, spiraled out of control in this part of Europe with dreadful and enduring consequences. The Russians and we would be well served to tread very carefully.

Our NATO alliance requires action when any member nation feels threatened and, believe us, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia (to mention a few) have every reason to feel threatened, and they have already invoked article 4 of the NATO pact, which requires NATO to meet and to possibly act to protect any members that feel threatened.  We have begun to beef up our military assets in the area.  This is serious stuff.

President Obama’s foreign affairs fecklessness has been the focus of past essays, and make no mistake about it, our diplomatic clumsiness and lack of resolve is, and will be, part of the calculus that goes into every thugocracy’s decision to flex muscle. It is tempting to replay (and replay) Obama’s now-embarrassing ridicule of Romney when the Republican candidate so correctly labeled Russia as the West’s primary geo-political foe. But it serves no purpose.

This is a very dangerous situation our allies and we face. Diplomatic isolation and universal condemnation are, realistically, the only practical weapons we have. Firing verbal salvos at the President will only diminish the effectiveness of these rather sparse options.  Russia can cut off fuel oil to most of Europe at the flick of a switch and, in return, we, relatively speaking, can cut off a few Russian Oligarchs’ access to wintering in Florida.  The threat balance is pretty lopsided.

Yes, we understand that Putin’s decision to move troops into Crimea and the Crimean parliament’s decision to conduct a referendum (really, a plebiscite) is a patent violation of international law.  But it is not without precedent that nation’s violate international law in the pursuit of their own vital national interests. Remember Grenada?

President Reagan sent troops into Grenada because of his determination that Russia and Cuba were about to establish a foothold there, and our belief that an international airport that was being constructed was really a disguised effort to build an advance Soviet airbase from which to threaten America. Our Grenada incursion was uniformly condemned as a violation of international law and interference into the domestic affairs of another nation.  Even our steadfast ally, Great Britain, condemned the US invasion of tiny Grenada.  Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher telephoned President Reagan to ask him to reconsider.  He couldn’t because our troops were landing as she called.

While Putin may be violating international law, he too sees his country’s national interests at stake as one contiguous former Soviet-bloc nation after another turns West, many even affiliating with NATO.  Already Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have invoked article 4 of the NATO pact, which requires that NATO meet and consider military action whenever a member nation feels threatened. America has moved both naval and air assets into the region including the US Navy guided missile destroyer, USS Truxton, which crossed the Dardanelles on its way to the Black Sea as we were penning this essay.  Deploying the Truxton sends a message.  The ship is among the largest destroyers ever built and is designed as a multi-role warship with anti-aircraft, anti-submarine and anti-surface capabilities.  We have also deployed six additional fighter jets (we previously had four in the area) to patrol over Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and another ten are on the way to Poland. While this is, indeed, serious stuff, it is also very measured. F-16’s are not our latest fighters and, thus far, we’ve not moved a significant number of troops into the area.

France, meanwhile has gone ahead with its lucrative 1.2 billion Euro deal to sell two Mistral-class warships to Russia.

The “Vladivistok” helicopter carrier set sail late last week from the French port of Saint-Nazaire. The 22,000-ton warship is capable of deploying up to 450 soldiers, helicopters and tanks in amphibious assaults. When asked how they could deliver warships to a country threatening a sister NATO country, the Hollande government simply replied, “a contract is a contract.” British bankers have done a lot of business facilitating investment in Russia and it is estimated that Germany has over $20 billion invested in the Russian Economy.  It appears that if any heavy lifting is to be done it will be done by the United States, and we doubt that Putin has any great fear that we’ll do that.

We claimed we were invading Grenada thirty years ago to protect a relative handful of American medical students who were attending school there, but we were really there to stop the Russians and their Cuban clients in their tracks. Likewise, Russia claims she is in Crimea to protect the ethnic Russians who comprise a significant part of the Crimean population, but Russia is really there to draw a line in the sand, especially around the Crimean port of Sevastopol which is base to the Russian Black Sea fleet and her only warm water port.

The seeds of this conflict really were sown when so many of the former Soviet bloc nations were ushered into NATO so soon after they were freed from the Soviet Union.  The old Warsaw Pact disintegrated over night and Russia is just recovering from that trauma.

Crimea is a land of bloody battlefields.  It is where Leo Tolstoy saw battle long before he wrote War and Peace.  It is where the Charge of the Light Brigade took place and where Florence Nightingale walked onto the pages of history. More Frenchmen, Brits and Russians combined have died there than we have lost in all our wars since the Boston Massacre.

We have listened to a host of talking heads pontificating about how poorly Obama is handling the crisis in the Ukraine.  Retired military officers wax eloquently about sending American troops to all of the neighboring countries that are now allied with the West, and sending our most sophisticated aircraft into the region. Frankly, we’re glad they are retired.

Obama has relatively few cards to play. Let’s stand back, lower the volume and hope he plays them well.

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6 responses to “Cool It in Crimea: Time to Get Off Obama’s Back”

  1. Bobbi Holland says:

    An especially bright, intersting and informative article. Thank you for your wisdom and good scence.

  2. A cool headed analysis of the situation.
    This is 2014,not 1914.Perhaps we have learned something in the last 100years.

  3. Charles Anderson says:

    ditto the previous comments. I believe, given the serious domestic issues we face, most Americans are fatigued of the neo-con military bluster for such geo-political conflicts.

  4. sandy goldman says:

    Hopefully, we have learned from our mistakes like “Mission
    Accomplished” ventures that can also have long term unforseen tragic consequences
    Thank you for your intelligent assessment.

  5. Mark J Levick says:

    Your analysis is spot on as far as it goes. We have no cards in Crimea and never did. Regrettably we have no cards in the World because no one believes that Obama will use either American economic or military power to back up his rhetoric. Moreover he has convinced many otherwise bright people that isolationism is compatible with a Global economy. No rational person likes war but pretending that we can thrive as a passive player in a hostile World is unrealistic. We continue to have both national interests to protect and enemies who wish us ill. We need to recognize and appropriately address both. Our track record in so doing over the past decade is poor at best. We are leaderless and thus rudderless as we drift toward toward irrelevance on the World scene and bankruptcy at home.i

  6. Ron Fragen says:

    Note while we watched the Olympics Russia negotiated an arms deal with Egypt. Obama cut aid to the Egyptians who have been helpful to Israel. Putin is moving on many fronts and we diminish our opportunities with a poor energy policy.

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