Lack of U.S. Clarity and Decisiveness in Europe May Stumble America into War

The pro-Russian uprisings happening in the eastern Ukrainian provinces of Donestsk, Luhansk, and Khariv is part of a larger effort Russia hopes will undermine the Ukrainian government’s ability to control its own territory.  This will likely lead to an invasion by Russian troops in Ukraine’s east, along with provinces like Odessa, Mykolayiv, and Kherson around the Black Sea and Crimea where Russian is the predominant language.

These actions will destabilize Ukraine and give Russia control over all of Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea and the nearly $200 million in European trade and investment projects.  Along with continued threats to cut off energy through Ukraine and into Western Europe, disrupting Ukraine’s Black Sea trade and investment is another way Russia can use military force to neuter Ukraine and intimidate those countries it wants to make a part of the Russia-dominated Eurasian Customs Union.

Putin is thus moving carefully with the 40,000 troops sitting on the border with Ukraine.  Instead of launching them immediately, he is waiting for (or aiding in) the fomenting of unrest by Ukraine’s Russian populations and the creation of “locally grown” referendums that call for re-joining Russia.  This not only plays into the perceived lawlessness in Ukraine that gives Russia a pretext for invasion, but also helps Putin’s image as the commander of a Russia that holds international sway.  Finally, Ukrainian Prime Minister Yatsenyuk’s call for the regions to have more power tells Putin Kiev is nervous.

U.S. Response: Long on Rhetoric, Short on Action

Pledges of serious economic and energy-sector sanctions and other “21st century tools” are not enough when they are coupled by little work on the ground with the Ukrainians and disjointed efforts with NATO and our European partners.  Putin has taken the cue from the Obama Administration’s unwillingness to follow through on its “red line” threat over Syria and hasty desire to leave Afghanistan and Iraq to conclude the U.S. won’t pay the cost of stopping Russia from going into Ukraine.

However, the U.S. risks war in Europe by not addressing Russia’s moves in Ukraine and the region.  Russia will take this “unspoken red line” as a green light to go into Moldova and the Baltic States, creating more concerns among NATO’s Eastern European members and energy-dependent European Union members.  If the U.S. (and Europe) are not willing to pay the cost of a potential NATO members that borders other members of the Alliance, then how far can they be pushed?  This will force the U.S. into a larger and more costly conflict over which the American people are not willing to pay.

Some 100 million people in Eastern Europe and the Baltics are living in free and independent states.  They are no longer under the “yoke of Soviet oppression.”  American neglect is putting some of that gain at risk.  Other ramifications of limited U.S. actions to this crisis include NATO becoming neutered, a permanent division between the U.S. and Europe, Russia exerting more influence in the Middle East, Iran playing hardball against the U.S., China pushing Taiwan over the trade deal and undermining Taiwanese independence, and North Korea getting more aggressive against South Korea and Japan.

Time for Serious Moves

With the loss of Crimea, Putin’s statements regarding Russia’s ability to invade other countries to “protect” ethnic Russians, and unrest in Ukraine, the U.S. should consider the following moves: 1) Hold three major NATO exercises – one in the Baltic Sea (highlighting the Baltic States) the other centered out of Poland (emphasizing the Alliance’s Eastern European members) and the third with Turkey and Greece (in the Black Sea); 2) Provide immediate and expanded military aid to Ukraine, Moldova, and the Baltic States; and 3) Send a presidential delegation to Ukraine to supervise and monitor the upcoming elections in May.  The delegation should be led by former President Carter and joined by former Presidents Clinton and G.W. Bush and be cast in a high-profile way.

The U.S. can take a leadership role that will help end this crisis by imposing clear costs to Russia for its actions and a limit to its territorial and economic influence and prestige.  But only if the U.S. is willing to act with clear objectives and closely with its European allies.  If not, a conflict that brings serious costs to all sides is likely to ensue.

Stephen M. Ackerman teaches Economics as an Adjunct Instructor at the College of Idaho and Economics and Political Science as an Adjunct Instructor at Westwood College Online.  He was an intelligence analyst with the U.S. Air Force, and an analyst with the President's Commission on Defense Base Closure and Realignment.