March 20, 2014–Sixty years ago today it was foggy in Long Island Sound—much like it was in Washington this morning–as the trans-Atlantic flight lined up on its approach to Idlewild Airport (today Kennedy). The plane bore a top French general on an emergency mission. He was General Paul Ely, the chairman of the French Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the mission was to beg for all kinds of U.S. military aid. In Indochina the French garrison in the mountain fortress of Dien Bien Phu had come under attack and suddenly all the old assumptions were in question. The Ely mission was a desperate gamble to secure U.S. help. General Ely went in thinking merely of planes, guns, and ships. But while he was in Washington the question of an American intervention was put on the table by U.S. officials.
You can read all about the Ely mission here. But my purpose today is more immediate. The Dien Bien Phu crisis of 1954 bears useful comparison with the maneuvering today over the Crimea. Russian president Vladimir Putin is using his military forces to annex the Crimea, which used to be Russian but became part of the Ukraine until this past weekend. Ukrainian forces are weak, no match for the military power Russia can bring to bear. Leaders in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, are as desperate for American help as the French at Dien Bien Phu.
The two crises are different in any number of ways. In the Crimean crisis we are talking regular troops, not a guerrilla army versus a Western one. The present crisis is a matter of state power, not revolution. But what is similar is the structure of the two situations from the point of view of the American president.
Indeed, there is a mission involved here too–Vice-President Joseph Biden’s sudden trip to Poland and Lithuania, lands abutting Russia (the former the Ukraine as well) who are alarmed at the events unfolding. Biden’s reassurances to concerned leaders mirror those American officials gave France in 1954.
Like Dwight D. Eisenhower then, Barack Obama would like to sustain the Ukraine and preserve its territorial integrity. (We’ll leave aside the question of the respective Russian and Ukrainian claims on the Crimea.) But from Washington’s perspective the question must be one of deployable military force. In 1954 President Eisenhower had plentiful naval and air power with which to intervene. Officials who opposed that course argued that those kinds of forces would prove insufficient and that ground troops would be necessary to make an intervention work. Eisenhower took measures to signal his intentions while his top advisers dickered over their course.
Obama is acting in the same fashion. The Biden mission is one signal, as is an invitation to the Ukrainian prime minister to visit Washington. Air Force F-15 and F-16 fighters have been sent to Poland and Lithuania to betoken U.S. capabilities to act. Just a week ago the main strength of the U.S. Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean, the task force built around the nuclear aircraft carrier George H. W. Bush, made a port visit to Turkey, at the entrance to the Black Sea, where lies the Crimea and the littoral nations of Russia and Ukraine. One warship from that force, the guided missile destroyer Truxton, went on into the Black Sea, where it visited a port in Rumania and conducted exercises with the Rumanian and Bulgarian navies. Authorities in Washington say the naval moves are all long-planned actions but their function as signals is still clear.
Washington’s problem today, just as in 1954, is the mismatch between U.S. capabilities and the measures that would be required to obtain the outcome it prefers. A guided missile destroyer and a few fighter-bombers are not going to stop the Russian army. The whole Sixth Fleet also lacks the necessary capacity. Boots on the ground would be required. Most American boots are in Afghanistan or in the process of returning to the United States and being reconstituted. The only nearby available U.S. ground force is the reinforced battalion combat group that is the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit in the Mediterranean, which recently participated in maneuvers in Greece.
If anything, in 1954 Dwight Eisenhower possessed greater capacity to act in the local situation–but there it did not work either. In the current situation, if the signals are too many or too forceful there is a danger of inadvertent escalation. Mr. Obama will need considerable diplomatic dexterity to get out of this situation without harming relations with either the Ukraine or Russia (the latter being already bad enough).
Meanwhile Kiev is sending its own signal–instructing Ukrainian military forces to evacuate from the Crimea. Mr. Putin may have succeeded in his annexation. Let us hope that this crisis does not sharpen any further. But some attention to historical precedents like Dien Bien Phu might help officials to clarify their thinking.