It seems pretty clear that Russian President Valdimir Putin can do pretty much what he wants in Ukraine. It also seems pretty clear that the United States and Western Europe will pretty much acquiesce to anything he does short of an outright invasion.
The best guess among the experts — and guess is all it is — suggests Putin won’t send troops across the border into eastern Ukraine. Instead, Russia will settle for undermining Ukraine’s sovereignty by coercing Kiev to adopt constitutional changes that will make its regions with large ethnic Russian populations all but autonomous. They would be, in effect, Moscow’s satellites within Ukraine that would prevent that country from more closely aligning with the West and that could, on some future occasion, be absorbed into Russia.
Putin would get all he wants without sending in his 40,000 troops massed on the border into Ukraine, provoking what could be a messy war unlike the nearly bloodless annexation of Crimea. But no one should discount the possibility of an invasion. After all Putin did dispatch agents to orchestrate takeovers of government buildings in several cities in eastern Ukraine. Should Ukraine’s use of force to recover the buildings lead to bloodshed, Putin would have a pretext for invasion.
Neither Washington nor Western European nations have done much to discourage the Russian strongman. Sanctions imposed after the Crimea affair don’t seem to have. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has softened her once strong statements, apparently because of German business interests with Russia.
President Barack Obama has refused to provide even the small arms requested by Kiev for self-defense. Worse, Washington won’t share with Kiev U.S. intelligence about the Russian troops on the Ukrainian border, according to the Daily Beast.
In a visit to Europe in late March, Obama urged European nations to reduce their reliance on natural gas from Russia. But he hasn’t followed up with moves to bolster that cause. He hasn’t approved construction of the Keystone XL pipeline or had his administration fast track permission to export U.S. natural gas to Europe. While it’s true such measures would be largely symbolic in the short term, they would telegraph U.S. resolve against Russian aggression.
Symbols matter. In this time of Russian aggression, the Pentagon announced it was implementing, four years ahead of schedule, nuclear arms cuts under the 2010 New Start Treaty. The cuts will most prominently reduce the U.S. submarine and bomber-launched weapons rather than land-based silos. Submarines and planes are less vulnerable to attack, making them the best second-strike, i.e. defensive, weapons.
This move comes on the heels of the administration’s decision to cut overall defense spending.
How can all this do anything other than lead Putin to perceive weakness in Washington? And others to do the same. It could hardly be a coincidence that China picked this week to push back on the U.S. pivot to Asia, with Beijing’s defense minister lecturing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that China “can never be contained.”
As a nation threatened by China’s expansionist goals, Japan worries about U.S. resolve after Russia violated an international treaty to annex Crimea. “This is not fire on a distant shore for us,” a former high official in the Japanese government told the New York Times. “What is happening is another attempt by a rising power to change the status quo.”
The whole world is watching what happens in Ukraine — and how the United States handles the crisis.