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Ukraine, Now For The Hard Part: Part Two – The Return of NATO


My previous article explored the motivations and strategic priorities – geographic, economic, political and historic – that are driving Russian actions in Crimea. The need to keep Ukraine politically neutralized; the importance of Crimea and Sevastopol as a base for the Black Sea Fleet; the economic importance of the oil and gas pipelines through Ukraine to European markets; the high proportion of ethnic Russians living in Crimea and the peninsula’s historic attachment to Russia rather than Ukraine[1].

The events of EuroMaidan were interpreted as little better than a Western-backed coup against the pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych. It is clear that Russian intelligence was well aware of the depth of the involvement of US and European governments in supporting and organizing the anti-Yanukovych forces from the release of the Victoria Nuland tapes. Matters escalated and the Ukrainian President was not only forced to accept a humiliating bargain with the opposition, but was forced to flee the country, apparently for his life, turning up first in Kharkiv, then in Russia. Faced by a hostile – and illegitimate – government in Kiev that began issuing very anti-Russian legislation immediately, the majority ethnic Russians in Crimea panicked. As Mr. Putin feared for Russia’s access to the naval base in Sevastopol, he was predisposed to take advantage of this favorable development to humiliate the West and discredit the opposition in Kiev.

Mr. Putin is neither a madman, nor is he a Slavic Hitler. Though Russia bears some similarities to Weimar Germany, and would certainly like to see the post-Soviet order revert to something more favorable to Moscow’s interests, it does not appear that Mr. Putin considers aggressive war to be the most favorable means to reconstitute a Russian Empire. Instead, he is depending on Russian economic and financial pressure to bring the former states of the Soviet Union into a new Eurasian Customs Union, and he has been remarkably successful with Belarus and the Central Asian Republics. Military force, through the offices of the reformed Russian Armed Forces, is held as a threat and a check to governments that are too overtly pro-NATO, such as the Georgian government of Mikheil Saakashvili. It is in this context that the Crimean operation appears as a wholly opportunistic response to an alarming and unforeseen situation, rather than a deliberate and long-established plan.[2]


My analysis concluded by examining the limited options available to Kiev for resisting Russian pressure. There is no military option: the Ukrainian Armed Forces are hopelessly outmatched by the Russian formations available in the Western, Southern and Central Military Districts. Furthermore, the Ukrainian economy is brutally dependent on Russian oil and gas to power it, as well as from the transit fees the country receives for the transshipment of energy supplies across its territory to Europe. Kiev can only protest, and feebly enough at that.

This article will focus on how the governments of Europe and America should respond to the Russian escalation in the face of Western options and objectives, and the mid- and long-term consequences of the Crimean crisis.

The Fall of NATO

The truth is that the West has limited options because it has limited capabilities. Forcing Russia to abandon the Crimea is likely beyond the capabilities of Europe and America. Besides the unpardonable energy dependence of the EU on Russian gas exports, NATO has become a hollow force. Since the end of the Cold War, the European members of the Atlantic Alliance have allowed their defense budgets to be cut time and again in order to fund politically important social programs or else in a response to large budget deficits during the crisis.


European economies are larger than Russia’s, so spending as a % of GDP is somewhat deceptive. But the Russian economy has grown significantly since Mr. Putin came to power, and coupled with his increases in the Armed Forces budget[3] this has led to Russian military expenditures overtaking those of the principal European powers in absolute terms, not just in relative terms.

military expenditures

European powers have also responded to the changing threat environment and the seeming obsolescence of NATO by ending conscription and sharply reducing the size of their active duty militaries.

NATO military

What the above graphic does not show is the fact that what remains of the standing armies of Western Europe[4] have been reoriented towards lighter, more easily deployable forces. The expectation that the XXIst Century would be the century of “brush wars” against irregulars and insurgents has led to an emphasis on airmobile forces, to the detriment of the “heavies” that could be expected to fight, survive and win a conventional battle against the Warsaw Pact in West Germany. Armored and mechanized infantry divisions have been scaled down to brigades, and those brigades in turn mostly transformed into lighter versions of themselves by replacing heavily armored infantry fighting vehicles like the M2 Bradley with less armored, but more versatile Stryker vehicles[5].


Russian rearmament efforts are impressive, especially in contrast to the total disarmament of Europe’s major states. However, it is not comparable to US military spending. America remains the preeminent military power on the globe, despite the increasing global challenges we face. That being said, America is not omnipotent: a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan has seriously impacted force structure as well as military doctrine. US force posture is geared today towards “Future Wars” against unconventional forces; and while we are rich enough to maintain significant conventional forces, we are not rich enough to maintain them everywhere at once. President Obama has identified the Eastern Pacific as the area of greatest potential danger to the US over the next decades, and he is right: but that does not mean other threats cannot arise in areas of our geostrategic interest. That is now the case.

Russia has rebuilt her military, moving from purely defensive capabilities to now being able to project power in its near abroad. Where the first Chechen War was a disaster under Yeltsin, the Second Chechen War under Mr. Putin showed great advances in Russian military capabilities. The 2008 Georgian War further demonstrated this fact, and the swift occupation of Crimea was executed very well indeed. Russian confidence has grown over the decade with increased budgets and with each successful operation, even as US power remained bogged down and distracted. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Russians moved so boldly in Crimea so soon after the last major U.S. formations in Europe were deactivated: the 1st Armored and 1st Infantry Divisions began leaving Germany in 2006[6]; the 170th Infantry Brigade was deactivated on 9 October 2012[7]; the 172nd Infantry Brigade on 31 May 2013[8]; and Vth Corps itself was deactivated on 12 June 2013[9]. 6 days and 69 years after D-Day, the US Army Europe was little more than a headquarters staff and supply detachment.


It should be evident that the US had limited means of immediate reaction to the Russian moves. The US Army has nothing in Europe with which to counter the 14 to 16 armored and mechanized brigades that Russia could assign to a Ukrainian operation. The only forces available in Europe are the 173rd Airborne Brigade and the Mechanized Infantry Brigade (Stryker). A Marine Amphibious Brigade is in the Persian Gulf and could have been sent to reinforce these units, but it would take weeks to assemble and deploy a sufficiently large mechanized force to actually back-up the Ukrainian army.

These units would either have to transit NATO territory (Poland at a minimum) or else enter the Black Sea and go to Odessa in Ukraine’s southern border. Both avenues pose dangers: the former would require political approval from the NATO nations being transited, an uncertain prospect indeed; while the latter would bring the US Navy in to the very restricted waters of the Black Sea, within easy range of Russian air and naval aviation assets, as well as the submarines of the Black Sea Fleet.

Faced with limited options, President Obama chose prudence over bellicosity. There is no doubt he wants to make Russia pay a price for her flagrant transgression of international law, but he is keen on avoiding any escalation of the crisis. There is no doubt that whatever meager desire for taking out the “big stick” that the President might have felt initially was quelled as soon as he hung up the phone with European leaders. The message from Berlin, London and Paris was clear: if America wanted to rattle the sabre, we would rattle it alone. Europe had no intention of stirring for Ukraine.

His detractors immediately pilloried him for his weakness, but this is mere rhetoric as these same people have offered no alternatives. I admit to castigating the President myself; but a calmer analysis of capabilities has convinced me that even a more bellicose President – even the “farsighted” Sarah Palin[10] – would have been forced to a similar restraint by our contemptible weakness, and that of our allies, in conventional forces. In fact, when the more “masculine” President George W Bush – a man no conservative would ever describe as soft on foreign policy – was confronted with the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008 what was his response? He sent humanitarian aid to the Georgians (not military aid) via US Air Force cargo planes, and he imposed some economic sanctions on Russian arms firms. President Bush did not even push for ejecting Russia from the G-8 or withdrawing support for Russia’s 2014 Winter Olympics bid (obviously). None of Bush’s advisors advocated taking on Russia in 2008[11]; but today they are lambasting President Obama for making essentially the same decision 6 years later with an even stronger Russia.


America will suffer a loss of prestige, as will Europe, by allowing Russia to impose a military solution on Ukraine. After all, the crisis was provoked by the US and EU backing the Kiev opposition and supporting a coup against Mr. Yanukovych, and when push came to shove, Western promises of support and friendship were shown to be empty. But this is not the basis of determining policy. The US has suffered far worse blows to its international prestige and survived them: the withdrawal from Vietnam, the Iranian Revolution, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. This is because the basis of American power remained, as they do today.

In any event, the West does retain some options. While forcing the Russians to evacuate Crimea through a “hardline” stance is today out of the question, America and Europe can make it Russia pay an economic and political price for their flouting of international law. The Moscow exchange took a beating in the wake of the occupation and has not recovered:


And the ruble has suffered a substantial devaluation against both the US dollar and the Euro, to an extent that Russia’s Central Bank will not be able to support its value:


These are short-term effects that, while painful, Mr. Putin will be able to bear. The fact that some oligarchs and wealthy Russians are losing money in their stock portfolio isn’t going to bother him too much as it doesn’t affect the mass of Russians who do not have positions in the Moscow exchange. Much more bothersome is the devaluation of the ruble, which makes imports more expensive for the Russians. Not just consumer imports either; Russia imports much heavy equipment, capital stock and high technology items that are essential for maintaining industrial productivity.

A more powerful weapon in the Western arsenal, though one that could only be wielded as part of a very long-term strategy, is to discourage foreign direct investments in Russia by Western companies. Russia receives between 2% and 3% of her GDP in investments in her companies that bring vital capital, but more importantly, Western managerial and technical experience. Without these investments, Russia’s industries would find themselves less and less competitive over time, and Russian output in strategic sectors would also stagnate and eventually decrease. It is a form of economic warfare with a multi-decade time horizon, but it is what eventually won the Cold War against the Soviets[12].

Just how important these inflows are is shown in the two graphs below:


Every strategic sector of the Russian economy is a recipient of foreign investment, without which, it would be difficult to imagine their sustainability. Energy production in particular is of a critical nature for Russia: while Russia might not be a “gas station masquerading as a country”[13] Senator McCain is right in identifying energy production as the industry that pays for everything in Russia: the military modernization, the administrative apparatus, what social programs there are, and even the stability of the state. Cripple that, and you cripple Russia’s ability to pursue its ambitions in its near abroad.

What are the possibilities of dealing Russia a crippling blow in this regard?

Theoretically, they are good. Europe, North America and Japan account for the overwhelming majority of the investment into Russia (92%) as well as the existing stock of investment. Europe is the largest contributor as a region, but the United States is the largest single country at 22%. Germany and France are second and third. So this is a powerful tool that is concentrated in a small number of hands, all of which are pretty pissed off at Russia right now.


Unfortunately, when theory and reality mix, theory usually goes out the window. The US and Europe could conceivably impose sanctions that prohibited new investments in Russia and even could force companies to divest themselves of their positions, but does anyone really think that politicians will be allowed to make that decision? That would assume that politicians were independent actors and that national interests trumped economic profit seeking. We know that this is not the case. So the reality is that this policy tool will go unused, unless the US rattles the sabre enough to scare companies away. That seems unrealistic under the current Obama Administration.

Additionally, any US action would have to be seconded by the major European powers. Anyone want to put money on that happening? With Russia being a major economic partner of Germany and France always looking to gain any economic advantage it can, a unilateral US move would merely be opening the door for these competitors to take up the slack. Perhaps capitalism really does contain the seeds of its own destruction.


Other, political, sanctions could be sought – like trying to kick Russia out of the WTO or the G8, but while humiliating, those are unlikely to achieve much except increase Mr. Putin’s popularity in Russia as a victim of Western aggression and the sole defender of the Rodina. There might also be financial sanctions against Russian companies or Russian politicians, such as a freezing of their overseas assets. This would require Europe to play ball since the majority of Russian bank accounts are in European banks. Not likely.

Making Russia a pariah state isn’t in anyone’s interest anyway. The potential for even greater mischief is too great. If Russia felt they had nothing to lose, they might be tempted to help Iran with the militarization of their nuclear program. They might be more aggressive in their support for other dictators, like Nicolás Maduro, who is engaged in the violent suppression of dissent at home. Russia would stop collaborating in the anti-money laundering regime that is one of the more effective tools in the War on Terror. In short, the world needs Russia to remain engaged in the status quo system, whether we like it or not.

That doesn’t mean that nothing should be done. Direct sanctions and punitive actions are almost certainly counterproductive, unenforceable and more likely to split the Western alliance than to unite it. The United States can nonetheless take a long-term strategic approach that will negate many of the benefits accrued by Mr. Putin through his use of hard power.

  1. Support Ukraine. The first step is to stabilize the Ukrainian economy and state finances. The country is an economic basket case and owes creditors in Russia and the West around USD 32 billion. That is not chump change for Ukraine and the country has no chance of paying this debt off. The United States and Europe should make every effort to get the Ukraine back on its feet through improved market access, credits, and debt restructuring to ease the interest burden on the state finances. Since Russian creditors aren’t going to be willing to play this game, bridge loans to meet payments to them will have to be arranged. The price for this support is obvious: the Ukrainians are going to have to accept a degree of US and European supervision of their finances that they may find burdensome. However, given recent events, they may find it less burdensome than dismemberment or annexation by Russia. 
  2. Reinvigorate the NATO alliance. For the past 24 years, NATO has been an alliance without a purpose. That needs to change. While I don’t advocate restarting a Cold War with Mr. Putin’s Imperialist Russia, I do support putting the muscle back into the European alliance system. That depends to a very great extent on Poland and Romania. These nations are close enough to the bear to see its claws, and both have a living memory of life under Russian rule. They are the nations who, with American financial and military assistance, should form the new bulwark of European defense.This goes beyond merely selling the Polish Air Force some F-16’s. America’s commitment should be clear and unequivocal: the US Army should return to Europe and re-base a minimum of 3 to 4 “heavy” brigades[14] in Eastern Europe. Having a credible deterrent force in place is necessary to the next step to be taken successfully.
  3. Rebuild the Ukrainian military. The Ukrainian Armed Forces, which have been underfunded and ignored for the past 2 decades, are in serious need of modernization and retraining. This is only possible if NATO – or at least the US – makes a serious commitment to advancing the necessary equipment and funds beyond what the government will be able to pay for in hard currency. This has been done in the past; it can certainly be done again for a strategic state like Ukraine. The downsizing of the US and European militaries means that there are stocks of equipment being phased out that are still serviceable and in many cases superior to what the Ukrainians field today. These stocks could be “sold” on very long-term credit with the West agreeing to provide the parts and technical expertise necessary to keep the equipment going.
  4. Expand NATO. Mr. Putin should be told very clearly that if he annexes Crimea,[15] the West will no longer observe the tacit “hands off” agreement regarding the former republics of the Soviet Union[16]. Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia should be targeted as candidates for EU- and NATO membership and extensive financial and military support offered to all of them during the transition period. Their security should, in the meanwhile, be guaranteed from Russian interference. Belarus should also be wooed, though more firmly entrenched in the Russian camp.
  5. Diversify European Energy Sources. A big part of what is driving the flaccid European response is the continent’s dependence on Russian gas exports. While this is nothing that can be eliminated in the short-term, both the US and Europeans have an interest in reducing their long-term dependence on the power to the East. This also jibes nicely with NAFTA’s economic interest in exporting more oil and gas. The US should authorize the sale and export of the bonanza of natural gas that is coming from our plentiful shale deposits; authorize Keystone XL to further integrate the North American energy market; and develop the facilities and capabilities to become a substantial and far more reliable exporter of LNG to Europe. Good for them and good for us. Russia can respond by diversifying their export markets; but the point isn’t to cripple Russia, but rather to give the Europeans freedom of action which they do not enjoy today.

Regardless of what we do, it might be very difficult to save Ukraine. The country is very seriously divided. Many commentators have criticized the Western media for focusing too much on the linguistic divide in the country and blowing it out of proportion; but recent political developments actually seem to support this interpretation rather well. The EuroMaidan event was focused on Kiev and supported in the Western provinces, it was absent from and utterly rejected in the pro-Russian Eastern provinces. The last 2 general elections have shown a great deal of geographic and linguistic rigidity, with the West consistently voting for the pro-European Yushchenko and Timoshenko, while the East voted for Viktor Yanukovych on both occasions.


Unifying a country is no easy task even at the best of times, and this is not the best of times. No Russian leader, not just Mr. Putin, is going to allow the Ukrainian government the time or leisure to create a mass consensus that involves Ukrainian nationalism, linguistic separation and EU accession. The politics of divide et impera are simply too easy to apply and too tempting to ignore. If the United States and Europe pursue the policy I have described above, you can be sure that Russia will respond by increasing the pressure on Ukraine’s eastern regions in an effort to destabilize the country.

This might not be a bad thing. As much as it invokes the ghosts of the infamous 1938 Munich Pact, a partition of Ukraine could be in the interests of both Russians and NATO, if it led to a decrease in tensions and the acceptance of a new status quo. Unlike the abject humiliation of Hilter’s triumph over Chamberlain and Daladier, there would be no abandoning of Western Ukraine – this portion would become a full member of the European Union and NATO. Eastern Ukraine would become part of Russia, ideally with the Dnieper River as the dividing line between the two areas. Thus, the four most “Russian” of the Eastern Ukrainians provinces would reintegrate with Russia (I am not counting Crimea on the assumption that this is a done deal). Two of the “pro-Russian” provinces, Kherson and Dnipropetrovsk, would be divided on the line of the Dnieper.

For this to be successful, it would be necessary to provide substantial financial support for voluntary population transfers. Far from being “ethnic cleansing”, a relocation fund would allow ethnic and linguistic minorities to move to those territories that best suit their aspirations. It would be a means of taking the fuel out of any potential future fire, as anyone who remained would be required to renounce either their Ukrainian or Russian citizenship. And to be palatable to the world and to democratic principles in general, it would have to be 100% voluntary. No one would be forced out, at least not from the Western side.

If this seems like a throwback to an earlier age, it is: but Ukraine presents problems of nationalism and nationhood that have not been seen for almost 70 years in Europe. The Second World War ended with a great deal of ethnic cleansing and forced population movements, which is why there is today no Sudeten problem or large populations of Germans in the old “Polish Corridor”. Better a controlled break-up with guarantors of stability and national integrity on both sides, than to repeat the chaos and bloodshed that attended the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Given that Russia might very well be considering the forced reabsorption of these same eastern provinces, it would make sense for the West to lay the ground work now for both a deterrent force and a plan for a bloodless execution.


The West has an opportunity to regain relevance through this crisis. Refocusing on the real frontiers of freedom in Eurasia is necessary to prevent their continued erosion. The United States is right to withdraw from the interminable wars in the Middle East and to avoid embroilment in Syria, but avoiding entanglements is very different than not protecting strategic interests. Preventing the reformation of a Great Russian Empire is clearly a strategic interest for the democracies of the West, and that means recommitting to NATO.

The governments of the Atlantic Alliance must find the means to rebuild their conventional deterrent capabilities, which means that their militaries must turn away from the infatuation with “future wars” against asymmetrical adversaries. America can afford to “lose” Afghanistan, or many other brush wars, without suffering a strategic setback. It is a very different matter to lose a conventional war against a resurgent Russia or China. That is the proper focus of the Armed Forces. There is also the benefit that by shifting our doctrine back to conventional deterrence and away from counter-insurgency wars, we are more likely to stop the former and to avoid becoming entangled in the latter: a lesson we should have taken to heart much earlier in this century.

Sources and Notes:


[1] Crimea was a part of the Russian Soviet Repubic until 1954, when Nikita Khrushchev, a native Ukrainian, gifted the peninsula to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic – a minor administrative transfer in the Soviet Union, but now of great consequence as a “historic precedent” justifying the actions of the Crimean Parliament.

[2] That being said, it should be noted that Hitler also operated in a wholly opportunistic fashion: his Anschluss with Austria and the commencement of the Sudeten Crisis were begun by the agitation of local pro-German Nazi sympathizers, rather than a centrally directed effort from Berlin. Hitler was quick to take advantage of these openings however, and more daring than this Western rivals could believe. See A.J.P. Taylor’s work, “The Origins of the Second World War.” The great difference between Hitler and Putin is that the German openly wrote about and never stopped calling for a Greater Germany to be reconstituted by force of arms, whereas Mr. Putin has never done so. At most, he called the collapse of the Soviet Union a “geopolitical catastrophe”.

[3] Russia’s published military budget is not believed to accurately reflect the true spending on the Armed Forces.

[4] France, the United Kingdom and Italy in particular have mirrored the US move towards lighter, more mobile brigades; Germany and the Eastern European NATO partners less so. But Germany’s reduction in force size is even more pronounced than the other allies, so few Panzer and Panzergrenadier formations remain in the Bundeswehr.

[5] I have nothing against the Stryker vehicle system; it is admirably suited to a variety of roles. But it is not as well suited to meeting conventional armored forces head on as the Bradleys were. The cost advantage has also disappeared as the various modifications and changes to the Stryker design have raised the unit cost to similar or higher levels than those of the M2/M3.

[6] 1st Infantry Division left in 2006 (Spc. Stephen Baack, “1st Infantry Division Bids Farewell to Germany,” American Forces Press Service, Department of Defense, 6 July 2006) though the 2nd Brigade was left behind until 16 March 2008. 1st Armored Division only left in 13 May 2011 (Mark Patton, “’Old Ironsides’ bids farewell to Germany,” Stars and Stripes, 13 May 2011) though the 1st, 3rd and 4th Brigades had already departed. The 2nd Brigade was reflagged as the separate 170th Infantry Brigade.

[7] Matt Millham, “For Baumholder’s 170th Brigade, a low-key goodbye,” Stars and Stripes, 9 October 2012

[8] Steven Beardsley, “Final flourish as 172nd inactivates in Grafenwöhr,” Stars and Stripes, 31 May 2013

[9] Sgt. Daniel Cole, “V Corps inactivates after nearly a century of service to U.S. Army,” US Army Europe Public Affairs, 12 June 2013

[10] God forbid. Sarah Palin may have been right about Vladimir Putin invading Crimea (AP, “Sarah Palin Ukraine prediction of Russia invasion may have come true,” ABC News, 2 March 2014) but her subsequent advice put her right back into the category of looney (“Sarah Palin’s advice to Barack Obama: ‘Stop Putin with nukes’“, news.com.au, 9 March 2014). Given that the 5 day Georgian War occurred in August 2008, while George W Bush was still President it is difficult to see how Mr. Obama is responsible for the lack of “adequate” response.

[11] James G. Neuger, “Bush Aides Weighed Attack to Halt Russia-Georgia War,” Bloomberg, 13 January 2010

[12] To be fair, the Soviet isolation was self-imposed. I’m reasonably sure that Western firms would have jumped at the chance to invest in the old Soviet Union.

[14] That means armor and mechanized infantry.

[15] Crimea has voted overwhelmingly for Independence from Ukraine and admission to Russia, but the Russian Duma still has to approve the measure of annexation. They have promised to hold a vote this Friday, 21 March.

[16] It can be argued convincingly that the West has never observed this “tacit understanding”, but with the exception of the Baltic States, no vigorous effort has ever been made to include Belarus, Ukraine or the Caucasus states in NATO.

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