There’s been a lot of talk about how Russia’s invasion of Crimea means a return to the Cold War. History never repeats itself exactly (it merely echoes). But there are actually some lessons from the Cold War which could be applicable to the crisis in Ukraine.
The first is that facts on the ground matter. The Soviet Union occupied half of Europe after World War II more or less with our blessing. Yes, we felt tricked that Josef Stalin installed communist regimes, but his troops were there because they had been our allies. Once President Truman realized Stalin’s true intentions, he tried to counter Soviet expansion with his containment policy. But he was still playing catch up. Not only did the facts on the ground in Eastern Europe favor Stalin, so did the impression, left by years of cooperation with Roosevelt, that the United States was not really interested in fighting another war after the victory over the Nazis.
We are in a similar situation today. Putin must surely understand — if for no other reason than because we are constantly telling him so — that Americans are weary of war. He’s also likely gotten the impression that Obama, like Franklin D. Roosevelt before him, prefers a world in which Russia is given a fairly wide berth. That was clearly signaled by the Russia "reset" policy, and it was an impression likely reinforced by Obama’s casual handling of the Ukraine crisis, complete with comedy TV appearances and Florida vacations, which at the very least indicated a lack of alarm.
There’s another similarity: Russian troops now occupy Crimea as they once did Poland in 1945. Because of that, Putin likely thinks the Europeans and Americans are bluffing over Ukraine, as Stalin likely thought Truman was doing when he first protested Soviet actions in Poland. But Truman was not bluffing. He not only resisted Soviet aggression against Turkey and Greece, but eventually made it clear that he would resist Soviet bullying by launching the Berlin airlift in 1948-49. And, of course, he went on to launch his containment policy which lasted for a generation.
Obama faces a similar challenge. At some point he will have to choose between a containment policy of his own or business as usual. Putin may not give him the choice of trying to have it both ways. At some point the president should expect to be tested, as Truman was, to show how much he really believes in all his rhetorical support for Ukraine.
But there the similarities with the Cold War end. Putin may have the military and geopolitical advantage in Ukraine, but he does not enjoy the same strategic assets of the Soviet Union. His military power is not as great; except for nuclear weapons, Russia is not really a global power. The ideological struggle over communism is missing. And unlike in Stalin’s time, Putin’s political base at home (the nouveau riche oligarchs) do not want economic isolation. They want to continue to shop at posh London shops and to continue getting rich selling natural gas abroad. This means they are far more vulnerable to economic sanctions than were the travel-deprived apparatchiks of Soviet times.
There’s another difference. While Putin occupies Crimea, he does not occupy all of Ukraine. Unlike in 1945-47, when about 500,000 Soviet troops occupied Poland, there are today no Russian troops in Ukraine outside of Crimea. Thus most of Ukraine is still free. We should be taking advantage of this window of opportunity because Putin may close it soon. Stepping back and waiting to see what Putin does next is likely to convince him that he can move to the next step, whatever it may be.
One of the most important lessons of the Cold War is that drawing lines in the sand actually works. We often think of how the containment strategy held the Soviet Union in check, but the real tests of strength actually occurred before that strategy was fully in place. Truman "lost" Poland (mainly because he never had it in the first place), but he drew the line with Turkey and Greece. Both countries ended up as NATO allies, not members of the Warsaw Pact. We should be drawing similarly clear lines in the sand today, particularly with respect to the Baltic members of NATO, making it absolutely clear that the United States will honor its NATO Article Five commitment to defend those countries.
The challenge for U.S. policy is not to let Russia’s fait accompli in Crimea signal a complete abandonment of Ukraine. It’s one thing to say we will not go to war to defend Ukraine’s independence, and another one altogether to consign Ukraine forever to Russia’s sphere of influence. Not everything in foreign policy comes down to threatening war. Most Ukrainians want to be part of the West, as the Poles did some 70 years ago, and this matters more in the long run than the strength of Russia’s armored brigades.
So let’s give the Ukrainians — and the Russians — a long-term strategy. In addition to near-term sanctions against Russia that truly threaten its ability to do business with the West, we should be offering to assist Ukraine’s economy. We can do this not only by supporting loans and loan guarantees to assist Ukraine through its immediate crisis, but to help the International Monetary Fund and the European Union construct a program of aid-for-reforms that can turn Ukraine’s economy around. Part of Kiev’s problem is that it pretends to want to join the West but it never gets its economic house in order to actually do it. Economic aid packages are fine, but Ukraine’s economy needs serious reform.
The most important thing President Obama could now do is to signal to Putin that he has the patience to follow through on a strategy of isolating Russia. Putin likely believes he lacks that patience. To prove him wrong, the United States should: launch tougher sanctions against Russia; help Ukraine get its economic house in order; start serious military planning for the defense of the Baltic States; restore America’s military and strategic defenses; and let it be known that the United States will never recognize Russia’s suzerainty over Ukraine.
A former assistant secretary of state, Dr. Kim R. Holmes is a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation.