How to Beat Down a Bully
There's only one way to stop Putin's ugly new doctrine of irregular intervention -- hit back even harder.
The international community is at long last beginning to take a strong stand against Moscow’s aggression in eastern Ukraine. There is solid evidence indicating not only that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down by Russian-aided rebels in eastern Ukraine, but that the Kremlin has bolstered the rebels with heavy artillery despite toughened Western sanctions. Moreover, Russia has massed over 45,000 soldiers near the eastern Ukrainian border, who are poised to undertake a "humanitarian operation." The large convoy of trucks Russia is sending to aid rebel-held Lugansk could prove to be a thinly disguised Trojan horse, setting off a major showdown once it arrives at the border.
President Vladimir Putin’s double game has only ramped up since the downing of MH17, in response to the recent gains Ukraine’s military forces have been making against the rebels. After a turning-point victory in liberating the strategic town of Slavyansk last month, the Ukrainian military has gone on to retake three-fourths of its lost territory and is now pounding the last two major rebel strongholds, Donetsk and Lugansk. Many of these rebels are not just pro-Russian sympathizers, they are full-fledged Russian citizens — including some notorious bad apples like Igor Strelkov and Vladimir Antyufeyev, whom Russia previously used in not-so-subtle attempts to destabilize former members of the Warsaw Pact. Now Moscow is also aiding them by firing artillery across the border at Ukrainian forces attempting a final rout of the rebels.
The time has come for the West to make a decisive move to counter Putin’s irregular war against Ukraine. The Russian president has introduced a perilous new norm into the international system, namely that it is legitimate to violate the borders of other countries in order to "protect" not just ethnic Russians, but "Russian speakers" — with military means if necessary. Putin has notoriously threatened to annex Transnistria, the Russian-speaking territory of Moldova, inter alia. The Putin Doctrine represents a serious transgression of the status quo that has guaranteed the continent’s security since the end of World War II; moreover, it violates the most essential tenet of the post-1945 international order.
The aim of Western actions must involve compelling Russia to end all support for the rebels in eastern Ukraine and ensure complete respect for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. In order to bring about this result — and ensure Moscow does not continue its dangerous double game — a comprehensive approach is needed. It should consist of three elements: even tougher economic sanctions; military armaments to Ukraine; and an updated NATO strategy. The combined effect of this approach is to persuade the Kremlin that the cost of its Ukraine adventure and aggressive pursuit of the Putin Doctrine is too high.
The West has imposed economic sanctions on Russia for the past several months, but the results thus far have been feeble. The problem is partly that the sanctions started small and were only slowly ratcheted up. Moreover, European sanctions have been noticeably weaker than U.S. measures, feeding Putin’s calculation that he can continue to act as he chooses, while a reluctant Europe hesitates to impose sufficiently punishing measures.
The sanctions that the United States and the European Union put in place on July 29, however, are strong enough to get Moscow’s attention. Indeed, despite Russia’s counter-sanctions on European and American food products, Putin is witnessing the failure of his efforts to split Europe from the United States — not to mention the larger failure of preventing Kiev’s new government from tilting to the West. But these measures have not been enough to actually deter Russia from continuing to intervene in eastern Ukraine. The West needs to make clear that the latest sanctions will not be the last if Moscow’s aggression is not rapidly terminated.
The second part of a comprehensive strategy is to make it easier for Ukraine to re-establish control in its restive east. Since his late-May election, President Petro Poroshenko has conducted a successful counteroffensive against the rebels in eastern Ukraine. His forces have resealed a significant part of its eastern border and taken back much of the territory seized by the rebel forces. But as Poroshenko’s troops have advanced, Moscow has increased the amount and sophistication of military supplies to Ukraine, including the SA-11 surface-to-air missile system that shot down MH17 and the SA-13 system. Thus far, his multiple requests for direct lethal aid have only met with reluctance in Brussels and Washington.
The West has dithered under the assumption that providing lethal aid to Ukraine would escalate the conflict. But a sanctions-dominant approach clearly has not prevented escalation. Indeed, with France’s determination to sell the Mistral ships to Russia, the West is in the peculiar position of arming the aggressor and forbidding arms to the victim. If Russia does not cease firing missiles at Ukrainian forces and supplying the rebels with arms and equipment, and does not pull troops back from the border within two weeks, the West should begin supplying Ukraine proper with anti-tank missiles, anti-aircraft missile batteries, and a variety of additional infantry weaponry. And it should immediately threaten to do even more if Russia invades eastern Ukraine — including inviting Kiev to join NATO.
The third element of a comprehensive strategy against Moscow requires a clear-eyed understanding of the Putin Doctrine. His stated right to "protect" Russian speakers is an invitation to intervene along Russia’s border in all directions, including in the territory of America’s NATO allies in the Baltics and elsewhere. For this reason, Washington’s response must involve a new approach at NATO for managing the Russian relationship. The NATO-Russia Joint Doctrine that concluded in the late 1990s, which saw Russia as a partner, and which spoke of not building military infrastructure in the new NATO members or permanently deploying major military equipment and forces, needs to be reviewed. Publicly.
The small steps taken earlier this year to reassure NATO’s eastern members — Baltic air policing, NATO maritime movements, several small-scale NATO exercises, placement of U.S. and Western European aircraft around the Baltics and in Poland, and the deployment of a company of U.S. paratroopers to Poland — need substantial reinforcing. If Russia fails to respond to tougher sanctions, pointed diplomacy, and lethal aid supplied to the Ukraine military, the allies must take further measures at September’s NATO summit in Wales.
It would be prudent to follow up NATO’s suspension of cooperation with Russia with an official review, with one of the options being maintaining the suspension and another being to end it and all other forms of cooperation. Because Washington still needs Moscow’s help with a handful of key things (missile defense, Iran negotiations, Syria peace talks, and agreeing to rules governing cyberwarfare), the aim would be to list ending the NATO-Russia Council as an option — but with the unstated intention of not actually following through. As NATO’s Deputy Secretary-General Alexander Vershbow has been arguing, Russia has begun treating the United States and the alliance as an adversary. This is why we need to go beyond suspension and dangle complete cessation, even if for the time being we don’t plan to make good on this threat.
Regarding NATO’s troop placement, however, the United States needs to use this as the major means of reassuring our allies. It would be a good idea to bring the level of U.S. troops in Eastern Europe up to 1,000 from the temporary placement of 600 paratroopers (this could include 100 to 150 "soft forces," such as trainers). Washington also needs to do its best to get the Western Europeans to add to this total. To entice the Europeans to match the U.S. commitment, Washington should propose not permanent placement but a perpetual rotational arrangement. This way, the reddish line of permanent placement would not be crossed, but NATO would nonetheless achieve upgraded deterrence capability, while mollifying Poland and the Baltics.
Eastern European nations such as Poland are likely to welcome and add to increased capabilities commitments; Western Europeans nations, however, are far more hesitant. Direct lethal aid and a regularized rotational U.S.-Europe troop placement will go most of the way toward re-establishing conventional deterrence against Moscow. But to go all the way, Western allies also need to conduct a yearly exercise in Poland (and make announcements that in future years this new major exercise will be taking place in the Baltic states). This should be a major ground-air exercise of the NATO Response Force (NRF), with a military plan for defending an invasion from the east.
Regarding military capabilities, the United States should endorse both the German proposal to organize clusters of allies that would increase their military capabilities and Britain’s proposal that would align Western allies to spearhead NATO military operations beyond what the current NRF plans call for. It is worth remembering that crude measures like the level of overall defense spending are far less important than the current state of military capabilities, which lately have been enhanced even by Western allies that have reduced their defense spending (e.g. France, Britain, and Germany). Furthermore, the alliance ought to augment its operational air force capabilities to be able to conduct 30-day air operations like the one carried out in Libya in 2011 (with the necessary fighter aircraft, flight crews, refueling aircraft, drones, and satellite surveillance). NATO needs to be thinking of capabilities in the full spectrum of land, naval, air, and cyber-power, and air capability is the biggest gap.
Indeed, the time has come for the West to take an even stronger stand against Russian aggression and force Putin to back down and end this crisis. The West should proceed with a fuller slate of toughened sanctions, targeting all major sectors of the Russian economy — virtually all of their products and services — and a full-fledged embargo against transferring any arms or defense technology to Russia. Tightening the economic screws is still a major element of a successful strategy to get Russia to cease and desist. But this is not enough.
The Russian president needs to be deterred from annexing other contested territories, like Transnistria, and reinforcing his ugly new international relations norm by deeply interfering in the internal affairs of other national states, such as the Baltics. This will require a series of additional and stronger military moves on the European chessboard. Let Crimea be the apogee of revanchist Russian aggrandizement. It is time for global security and international law to push back strongly against bellicose Russian dictates.