by Peter Huessy
Russian President Vladimir Putin annexes the Crimea in gross violation of international law. What should America do, if anything?
There are many different ideas. Some suggest doing nothing. Some assert we cannot do anything. Others feel the consequences of letting such aggression stand will be serious.
The country’s divisions are certainly reflective of how divided on this Americans are.
What then is the proper role for America in the world that both keeps us safe and enhances our prosperity?
Let’s review where we are.
Former Secretary of State Condi Rice explains her view, “When America steps back and there is a vacuum trouble will fill that vacuum”. She further asked “What are we signaling that America is no longer ready to stand in the defense of freedom?”
Former Congressman Ron Paul took a very contrary position, portraying the secession of Crimea as no different than the effort of Venice to leave Italy. “What’s the big deal” he noted asserting that such action is allowed under Article I of the UN Charter. After all he concluded in a March 17, 2014 USA Today essay, “Why does the U.S. care which flag will be hoisted on a small piece of land thousands of miles away?” (Paul of course appears oblivious to the difference between secession under the threat of the barrel of a gun vs. an advisory peaceful referendum).
Nicolai Petro of the Nation magazine on March 14, 2014 blames the crisis largely on the current government in Ukraine (and its ally the United States). He said Kiev did not listen to Crimean grievances, claiming that as President Putin explained, meaningful steps [by Kiev] in this direction…would indicate that the “socio-political situation in the country is normalizing,” and remove any rationale for Russian intervention.
West Wing Reports, a blog in America’s capitol, echoed apparently what some Americans believe, warning us: “It is time to stop fighting Cold War demons” and instead fight poverty and low job growth here at home. The author, Paul Brandus, then argued simultaneously that “we cannot stop Putin anyway” even as he urged the US to “do everything we can” to stop Putin.
Russian President Putin explained the situation by channeling MIT professor Chomsky with what he thought was a clever line that America has obviously wrongly “come to believe in their exceptionalism and their sense of being chosen” which in turn leads Washington to adopt “the rule of the gun”.
And finally, in a rather sensible explanation of what is the US might seek to do, former UN Ambassador John Bolton argued the US should “…Make the world safe for ourselves” and our allies and friends, but which does not mean “being the world’s policeman”.
How can we sort all of this out?
We first should understand we are dealing both with a crisis and a long term threat.
Russian special forces and military forces have been infiltrating Ukraine territory for some time, as Moscow had previously done in the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions of Georgia which they claim are not occupied territories but independent states.
Crises occur because the bad guys get to vote. Putin is taking advantage of what he sees as opportunity.
But to deter such actions and successfully navigate crises requires a previous history of smart decisions that give a nation diplomatic leverage. That includes a belief by your adversaries that you will give effect to diplomacy by backing it with military force. When a nation says up front that no force will be used, the credibility of that nation’s diplomacy is diminished.
Dana Milbank of the Washington Post complains that it is only crazed right winger that are unfairly blaming the administration. He asserts there is nothing America could do now, and the Crimea annexation by Russia has no connection with any previous American policy of perceived “weakness”.
He asserts as well “we do not want to militarize the situation”, even while claiming simultaneously such an effort is not even possible, citing “Even hawks”—whom he disparaged as unfairly blaming the administration—believe “there is no military option”.
The Long Term Always Starts Today
Here we have to go back a couple of decades. We should have invited Ukraine to be part of NATO at the end of the Cold War in return for developing strong relations with Russia’s democratic elements. And we should have laid out the sanction and economic consequences of an annexation by any power, including Russian, long before it occurred and not just accepted a written promise from Moscow to respect Kiev’s sovereignty.
The problem with the current crisis is that short term actions available to us may not be sufficient and long term actions that might have deterred the situation needed to have been initiated long ago.
That does not mean we can cast aside the long term actions needed now simply because a crisis is at hand.
One critical long term strategy is to adopt an energy policy that makes sense. America’s energy policy since the oil embargo of October 16, 1973 is largely contained in the 1975 energy conservation act. It did promote some coal production but that had no beneficial impact on the production of transportation fuels. The policy primarily pushed energy savings such as average fuel economy standards while concentrating on mechanisms to supply fuel to the US economy in case of supply disruptions.
As for the idea of breaking the back of OPEC–which had raised prices after the embargo from $3 a barrel to over $12–that is not even mentioned in the legislation even though we were spending some $300 billion annually on oil purchases by the end of the decade.
By 2012, that reached $900 billion annually.
Cutting net oil imports to zero would create 5 million new jobs and act as a $500 billion annual stimulus package for the US economy, says Robert Zubrin in a January 16, 2012 National Review essay “How to Reduce Oil Prices”. His proposals for mandating flex-fuel vehicles as part of such a strategy reflects in part the same push by former DCI James Woolsey and IAGS founder Annie Korin. That should be nationwide policy.
The 1975 legislation was framed by an assumption of declining US oil and gas reserves and parallel rapid domestic consumption increases from economic and population growth.
We know the US Geological Survey long ago identified the energy reserves we now know as unconventional oil and gas in North Dakota, Texas, and Pennsylvania. The computer and information technology revolution changed these from uneconomical to available as human ingenuity–fracking– transformed a resource deemed to hard to recover to one which can transform what was an American weakness–heavy dependence upon OPEC–into an American strength–the largest producer of oil and gas in the world.
An Energy Strategy
A longer term energy strategy might look like the following.
Build the Keystone pipeline–now in review for what appears to be a projected 70 months or nearly twice as long as it took America to win World War II!
The pipeline could then transport Canadian tar sands more safely to our Gulf Coast refineries that could then back out Venezuelan crude. This could help put an end to cheap oil for the Chavezistas as well as the billions in heavily subsidized oil for the pair of Marx brothers in Cuba and Nicaragua.
Here we get a possible trifecta: the Castro, Ortega and Caracas klepto-regimes can be brought down along with their drug running, their affiliation with terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and their partnership with the mullahs in Iran, as former Costa Rican Ambassador Jaime Daremblum testified about in late 2011 before a House Foreign Affairs Committee.
We could also approve en bloc and accelerate the future process for most of the 50 American and Canadian LNG export terminals currently proposed or estimated to be proposed in the near future. This would dramatically increase our capability to export natural gas to our European friends and allies, including those states such as the Baltic, Ukraine, Germany and Poland, for example, to significantly lessen the economic leverage Russia now has on Europe’s energy sector.
But even with the enhanced diplomatic leverage that would accrue to the US and its allies if we should adopt such energy policies, economics alone will not fully trump Russia’s aggression nor necessarily deter such action in the future.
Does International Law Matter?
International law if it means anything only exists if the Western Powers and its allies are strong enough to enforce it. Rogue nation leaders–including Russia as well as China, Iran, Syria and North Korea– are watching and drawing their own conclusions.
Now German Chancellor Merkel has said Mr. Putin has lost touch with reality. Our Secretary of State has said Putin is living and acting as if this was the 19th century.
All that may be true but to Moscow it does not yet make any difference.
Putin has said that the energy resources of the Caucasus and Trans-Caucasus are Russia’s “patrimony” and must be controlled by Russia if that country is to have any future. So while the energy aspects of what is occurring are important, there is another aspect of this which is very important.
The Infection of Liberty
As Russian expert Steve Blank, now Senior Fellow with the American Foreign Policy Council, and Dr. Pavel Baev, the Research Director and Professor at the Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO), told me, if nations formerly part of the Soviet Union fall into the western sphere–specifically adopting to some degree the rule of law, due process, transparent government and free markets–the Russian kleptocracy is in mortal danger.
It is not as if Putin has a definitive timetable of conquest. He will take what is offered. He will grab opportunity. After Georgia discussed joining NATO in 2008, he took South Ossetia and Abkhazia. He grabbed Crimea to forestall any further talk of Ukraine fully integrating into the European Union, let alone NATO.
In this context, the US administration is in a bind. It depends on Russia to support any UN sanctions action against Iran. But whatever Russia approves will keep the Mullah’s nuclear program moving forward. So how valuable is Russia’s “help”?
Russia does help with the resupply of our forces in Afghanistan. But only after interrupting the supply through bases in Azerbaijan and then “offering” to help open up that avenue again.
And yes Russia gave us the deal on Syrian chemical weapons. But while trading away (on paper, subject to delay) Syrian chemical weapons, they secured Assad’s survival and Iran’s success even as Damascus uses chemical weapons again against its own people.
Consequences of Putin’s Rules
What Putin wants is relatively simple: from the “near abroad” and former SU regions it to make things safe for the plundering of the whole for an elite few. It is how any organized crime family works. He is simply masquerading as a state, albeit a state with thousands of nuclear weapons, which parenthetically he and his military leaders have threatened to use against the US and its allies fifteen times since 2009.
But the way in which Russia is organized is fraught with danger.
As the only godfather in Russia, there is no replacement to Putin–in case he fails– that has any loyalty among the oligarchs or the military or the criminal intelligence services, and their associated drug gangs and gun runners.
If Putin stops grabbing, and compromises (even tactically) with the West (especially Ukraine), he may looks weak and may lose support especially among those in Russia who see this as an historic opportunity to reassemble much of what the Soviet Union lost at very little risk. Any agreement reached on “standing down” will be on paper only until such time as it remains inconvenient for Putin to abide by what he may agreed to now.
Add to this the weak Russian economy which is almost entirely reliant upon high oil commodity prices. And high oil prices continue to impede our economic recovery.
So Putin has to keep oil prices north of $100. And our energy policy enables this to continue.
Grabbing more of the near abroad even as he builds a stronger military ($775 billion in new investment over a decade) is part of that strategy.
And our allies may not be much help.
As has been noted, London’s stock market needs Russian cash. The French shipyard in Nazaire is dependent upon the Russian purchase of the warship being built there. And Germany gets a significant portion of its energy (oil and gas) from Russia.
So we find ourselves literally “over a barrel” because past mini-steps sold as integrating Russia into the “world’s economy” has ended up making the “world” impotent to challenge Russia’s rules—which are, put bluntly, the law of the jungle.
Bailing out Ukraine with $15B from the EU–$13 billion goes to its creditors of which one major one is Russia. So we help Ukraine and simultaneously reward Moscow for its aggression.
Whose Rules of the Road?
In this light, is the forced annexation of Crimea a serious event? Are the post WWII agreement of the rules of the road reinforced with the unification of Germany after the end of the Cold War gradually being “junked”?
Politics is about the established narrative
This is from where the power of the press comes–to establish the story line.
In this case the dominant media narrative has been a combination of: (1) Who cares about Crimea, (2) Russia deserved it anyway; and (3) It’s all our fault anyway.
Part of this is an unstated strategy to downplay the negative consequences of Putin’s practices. And the failure of our “Reset” policy.
If largely for political reasons, that becomes the established conventional wisdom, the narrative, then the real world consequences may be that the law of the jungle–what Putin himself ironically called the “rule of the gun”– will eventually apply everywhere. Including among rogue states with nuclear weapons.
Can We Solve Stuff Anymore?
A new Pew study and poll finds Americans losing faith in our countries ability to solve problems or deal successfully with crises, both foreign and domestic. That is part of the relative lack of public concern over Ukraine and Crimea.
According to Mr. David Brooks of the New York Times on March 10, 2014:
“We’re in the middle of a remarkable shift in how Americans see the world and their own country’s role in the world. For the first time in half a century, a majority of Americans say that the U.S. should be less engaged in world affairs, according to the most recent Pew Research Center survey. For the first time in recorded history, a majority of Americans believe that their country has a declining influence on what’s happening around the globe.”
Brooks then continues: ”A slight majority of Americans now say that their country is doing too much to help solve the world’s problems. Americans have lost faith in the high politics of global affairs. They have lost faith in the idea that American political and military institutions can do much to shape the world. American opinion is marked by an amazing sense of limitation — that there are severe restrictions on what political and military efforts can do. This sense of limits is shared equally among Democrats and Republicans, polls show. There has been surprisingly little outcry against the proposed defense cuts, which would reduce the size of the U.S. Army to its lowest levels since 1940. That’s because people are no longer sure military might gets you very much.”
So Brooks is setting up a narrative that says despite the dangers we see all around us, shoring up our military won’t help.
But Brooks then rightfully warns:
“It’s frankly naïve to believe that the world’s problems can be conquered through conflict-free cooperation and that the menaces to civilization, whether in the form of Putin or Iran, can be simply not faced. It’s the utopian belief that politics and conflict are optional”.
But then he falls off his podium and crashes again.
He asserts the new American reality is “certainly not Reaganism”, which he defines as the belief that America should use its military power to defeat tyranny and promote democracy. So just so the reader is clear, not only are we not going to restore our military capability and end sequestration, we also have to be disabused of the quaint idea that people might have that military power works, whatever they may remember about President Reagan.
Bringing Down the Soviet Union — Top Ten Lessons to be Learned
Brook’s view of President Reagan’s security policy is not uncommon. But its wrong. The 40th US President resorted to the use of military force quite sparingly–primarily in the Gulf of Sidra (twice), Beirut, reflagging the Kuwaiti tankers, liberating Grenada and variously assisting Honduras, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and Egypt with military aid.
True, this was in stark contrast with President James Carter who boasted after leaving office that one of his proudest accomplishments was to have never deployed American combat forces (Desert One failing to be deployed and thus not counted).
But Brooks gets it wrong. Much of what President Reagan did was economic, though strategic. And despite what the supposed conventional wisdom believes, the US has considerable economic leverage now if we are willing to combine that with our military capability and that of our allies to confront Moscow’s lawlessness.
So what are the top ten things President Reagan did starting in 1981 to confront the Soviet Union? And what would a comparable top ten list of things to do today look like?
1. Then: decontrol oil prices, which cost Moscow $15 billion every two years; 1A: Now: Open up ANWR and US coastal oil/gas production, and approve all pending nearly 20 gas terminal deals;
2. Then: Get Saudi oil production up to 9mbd from 2mbd—2B: Now; Increase US oil and gas production by at least 3 million barrels per day (MBPD);
3. Then: Provide Aid to Solidarity–3B: Now: Aid to the civil defense, military and counter terrorist sectors of the Baltic nations, Poland and Ukraine;
4. Then: Fire the Air Traffic Controllers—–4B: Now: Approve Keystone (Get tough with your political base);
5. Then: Aid the Afghan Mujahedeen–5B: Now: Sign a SOFA with Kabul;
6. Then: Procured and deployed the INF missiles—6B: Now: Expand significantly the US deployed ballistic missile defenses in Europe including Patriot, Aegis and Aegis Ashore, THAAD as well as advanced radars and sensors as well as Israeli systems where required;
7. Then: Increased defense spending in 1981-6; —7B: Now: Stop defense sequestration and restore health of defense industrial base, reform entitlements and get our fiscal house in order;
8. Then: Boom the economy through regulatory and tax reform between 1983-88——-8B: Now; Adopt major tax, regulatory and welfare/entitlement reform;
9. Then: Deny Technology to Moscow—9B: Now: Stop illicit technology flows to China and Russia;
10. Then: Modernize our nuclear deterrent and deploy national missile defenses–10B: Now: Fully modernize the US nuclear deterrent Triad, strengthen extended deterrence over our allies (to counter pressures on our allies to develop their own nuclear weapons); and build US east coast and gulf coast protections against missile and EMP threats.
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Peter Huessy is the President of Geostrategic Analysis located in Potomac, Maryland outside of Washington, D.C.