Russia, Georgia, Syria, Iran, and Ukraine: Cold War Redux?

I study deterrence, mostly in its non-nuclear, non-Cold War variety. (Deterrence is, to oversimplify, using threats to discourage an opponent from taking certain undesirable actions. Ex: "I'll cut off your oil supply if you attack my neighbor.") I am not an expert on Ukraine or Russia, but I will try to analyze the situation using my knowledge of deterrence, as I think this can tell us a lot about Russia's occupation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula. For the most part, it still has little to do with nuclear weapons, but, this being Russia vs. the United States in many ways, they are always lurking in the background.

Some of Barack Obama's critics in America, like John McCain, claim that Russia invaded Crimea because Putin knew America would do nothing about it. The reason Putin knew this was because America "lead from behind" in Libya, hesitant to get involved or commit, and, more importantly, issued a "red line" warning over chemical weapons in Syria and then failed to carry through with the ultimatum, which could weaken America's ability to deter other aggressors, as I myself argued in this blog last September. Is this true? Would Putin have been deterred if Obama appeared tougher or if, say, George W. Bush were still in the White House? Hardly.

I say this not because I twice voted for Barack Obama, but because to say it is his fault is either disingenuous, meant only to hit him politically, or betrays a complete lack of understanding of how deterrence works. As The Economist points out, Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 while G.W. Bush was in the White House and has occupied 20% of the country ever since. Not only did the bellicose President Bush not deter Russia from invading, he also did little to punish it as a result. Russia is much more interested in Crimea and Ukraine than the United States is. What's more, and as can be seen on the map above, Russia has easy access to Crimea and the whole of Ukraine. It can easily launch an invasion or incursion, whereas the United States would require a massive logistical operation just to get troops, ships, and equipment to Ukraine. Considering Americans' war-weariness and financial constraints, such an operation was always unlikely, regardless of how committed the President seemed to other causes or how aggressive his rhetoric. Putin has still been careful, in some ways: He did not invade all of Ukraine and reinstall its ousted president, for example. He took control of an area of Ukraine with a majority Russian population that was long part of Russia and hosts its Black Sea Fleet. He rightly calculated that the US and Europe would be angry, but not so much that they felt forced to undertake real action. In sum: Russia could not have been deterred from this unless there had been US/NATO troops on the ground in Crimea and eastern Ukraine prior to the crisis--something that would never have happened because it would have angered Putin and brought on a crisis by itself and because the US and its allies have never cared enough to risk that. In other words: Russia has deterred NATO and Ukraine from expanding NATO to include Ukraine. And without having Ukraine in NATO, Russia could not have been deterred from taking over Crimea. This is not Obama's fault.

So deterrence has failed. Or has it? Deterrence never realistically applied to all of Ukraine, especially Crimea which, with its Russian population, "Autonomous Republic" status, and Russian bases, was always only tenuously controlled by Ukraine. Deterrence can now work to protect the rest of the country and this is where the US, NATO, and the EU must take a stand. There must be diplomatic consequences for the occupation of Crimea. There must be much more severe consequences for actions in the rest of Ukraine, including attempts to coerce it away from a deal with the EU again. This does not mean war. As I mentioned, Russian nukes are lurking in the background and Russia has a massive geopolitical advantage in Ukraine and an enormous and powerful army. The US should be careful never to threaten war, either, as this would then be a further empty promise it could not back up. An embargo on Russian oil and natural gas would be the biggest step for the most severe case: a Russian invasion of Ukraine (which Putin has darkly called a "last resort"). This would hurt Europe quite badly, particularly countries like Slovakia, who get almost all of their natural gas from Russia, but also Germany, which imports a great deal of it. If Russia invaded Ukraine, however, this would have to be done.

Barring that horror scenario, freezes on assets held abroad by Russian oligarchs in its parliament or close to Putin would be a first step. Visa bans on travel to the US, EU, and other allied countries would be another significant step. These could be used in response to threats on Ukraine or attempts to manipulate it. At the same time, the US and EU should provide Ukraine with economic and technical assistance and promote a functioning democracy there.

In the end, Russia will probably keep Crimea, as it has Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This should come at a price, but Putin surely expects this and is willing to pay it. Further damage and influence over Ukraine can and should be prevented, however. Deterrence can only work when you have the power to back up your threats. This means it's important to chose your threats wisely and not to overplay your hand. Threats of visa bans, asset freezes, and sanctions are credible, and the latter would be quite severe. War is not, and is this is a good thing. There is hope for Ukraine yet.

And what about the title? It is possible that this crisis could lead to steady hardening of positions, especially if it gets carried over into negotiations with Syria and Iran, the former of which Russia supports directly, the latter of which Russia supports more indirectly as a bargaining chip. This would be a much-diminished "iron curtain," however, and Russia is not looking to retreat into economic or political isolation behind it. If you've read this, however, then the "Cold War Redux" part of the title did its job ;-).


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