President Theodore Roosevelt famously said: “speak softly, and carry a big stick.” His idea was to negotiate peacefully, but with the ever-present threat of the “big stick,” military action. Perhaps in this proverb lies is a valuable lesson for leaders of the Western democracies, and especially for President Obama.
On the weekend, well coordinated and armed militants attacked government buildings in six cities in eastern Ukraine. Echoing the Russian takeover of Crimea last month, many attackers reportedly carried Russian-origin weapons and were outfitted in bulletproof vests and camouflage uniforms with insignia removed.
Here’s an excerpt from the New York Times,
The United States ambassador, Samantha Power, said: ‘You don’t have to take my word for it, or even those of the Ukrainian government. You need only witness yourself the videos of professional military shepherding thugs into a building in Kramatorsk, the photographs showing the so-called concerned citizens taking over Slovyansk equipped exactly like the elite troops that took Crimea, or the video of a military operation in Krasny Liman by armed men with the same equipment’.”
Russia’s intensions, while not totally clear, do seem to be bad news for Ukraine. For a start, I believe Russia intends to use their Crimea-like tactics to create a land corridor through Ukraine to the Crimean peninsular, which Russia can then supply by land—Crimea is currently dependent on the Ukrainian mainland for basics such as food.
Next, depending on the level of resistance it receives, Russia will either back away from further direct military action or it will continue its aggression. We could see, for example, Vladimir Putin creating a further corridor through Ukraine that would create a link between Crimea and the Moldovan enclave of Transnistria, which is already under Russian control.
Putin could then turn his attention to the annexation of the entire eastern region of Ukraine—he seems to have some 40,000 troops massed on the border ready for his order to cross over into Ukrainian territory.
As Russia practices its brinkmanship, Ukraine must prepare for its May 25 elections, a crucial step in legitimizing its national government—an interim administration is currently in place, led by acting President Olexander Turchynov and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
The interim government faces a dilemma: It is hard to imagine Ukraine holding elections during a declared state of emergency so their actions in eastern Ukraine seem limited. Should they not act quickly and decisively, however, eastern Ukraine could slip from Kiev’s control and into Putin’s hands.
Of course, there’s the wider threat to world peace. How likely is it that Putin, emboldened by success in Ukraine, will not explore other opportunities to snatch back more former Russian controlled territories—Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, for example, or even parts of Poland?
So my question is: Shouldn’t NATO countries draw a line now and respond militarily to the real and present danger of a Russian invitation of Ukraine? If there is going to be a fight, why not in Ukraine rather than in the Baltic where those countries are members of NATO and would surely invoke Article Five, which commits each member state to consider an armed attack against one state to be an armed attack against all states.
Let’s be clear. Diplomacy should absolutely be the West’s first choice, but not its only choice. Perhaps if Putin could be convinced that NATO would act to protect the territorial integrity of Ukraine, he would call off his attack. And, if he won’t, then military action will likely be inevitable within the next year or so. Will NATO be any readier to act then?
I don’t want to see war any more than anyone else, but a year from now I don’t want to hear our leaders lamenting: I wish we’d acted earlier.