The Putin Doctrine

April 24, 2014–The news today is that Russian troops on the eastern border of the Ukraine are going to conduct military exercises, while Moscow warns the Ukraine not to rock the boat by using force against pro-Russia activists in the eastern Ukraine. This follows reports earlier this week that specific Russian special operations troopers had been identified in mufti among the Ukrainian “protesters.” (Today the New York Times, which reported this story, went back on the original claim after doubts emerged regarding the photographic evidence. The claim nevertheless has a certain plausibility.) Vladimir Putin’s earlier statements affirming his dedication to “New Russia,” in effect all the lands that formed parts of the historical Soviet Union, smack of irredentism– as was discussed here not very long ago (see “What Do You Say to a Country Called Ruthenia?” from March 24th).

Speaking of the old Soviet Union, it was an article of faith in Soviet military doctrine that “maneuvers” furnished great opportunities for disguising the unleashing of force. These various elements lead to a suspicion that Mr. Putin may indeed be laying the groundwork for a military operation.

It’s been a long time–decades now–since leaders of the former Soviet Union renounced the “Brezhnev Doctrine,” and much longer than that since Russian leader Leonid Brezhnev articulated that excuse for military intervention. Remember the “Prague Spring” of 1968? For me the tears still come when I reflect– on how it seemed a people were insisting on forging their own path into the future, and how the Soviet leadership insisted on their right to prevent any Eastern European nation from leaving Moscow’s camp.

President Putin is making a similar claim today, first to Crimea, now it seems, to the eastern Ukraine. It is the latest evolution of a policy that has included armed action in Chechnya and Georgia. Putin would apparently like to reunite the parts of the historic nation under the Russian flag. Thus the “Putin Doctrine.”

Mr. Putin should be careful what he wishes for. In Soviet times the need to enforce the Brezhnev doctrine helped drive unrealistic levels of military spending, and led to aid and trade commitments to Eastern Europe, both of which helped bankrupt the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The situation for Russia is not all that different today. The Russian economy, while stronger by far than Ukraine, remains weak on the international stage, and economic sanctions can wreak real damage to it. Equally to the point the imposition of Russian political, legal, and economic systems on what has become a foreign entity (whether Crimea alone or Ukraine as a whole) is going to involve real costs. Whether the Old Russia can bear those costs remains an open question. So far, reports out of Crimea indicate Putin’s minions are having difficulties creating the administrative mechanisms necessary simply to run the place.

As is so often the case in international relations, the resort to force or to coercive diplomacy is so much easier to initiate than is the follow-through required to make actions stick. With the Putin Doctrine I fear the future will bring continued chaos in the areas Russia has annexed; charges the problems are due to meddling from Kiev and, perhaps, Washington; and force used against Ukraine itself. Putin’s problem is that the further he expands his writ the more deeply he will become entrapped in a bed of quicksand. This would be a good time to reconsider. But it is likely already too late.

[This post was revised on April 25 after I saw reports disputing the accuracy of claimed photographic evidence of Russian special operations troops in the Ukraine.]

What do You Say About a Country like Ruthenia?

March 24, 2014– Remember Ruthenia? I thought not. How about Carpatho-Ukraine? Transylvania? Bessarabia? Bukhovina? Danzig? The Curzon Line? Maybe Sudentenland. I’ve no time today for anything very ambitious–and my pardons to the songwriters of The Sound of Music–but I just wanted to put one disturbing issue on the table. All those (Central European) places have in common that they were subjects of claims and counterclaims based on national preferences and/or ethnicities in the period between the two world wars of the 20th Century. Some of them were even awarded from one nation to another, or made into free state enclaves during various diplomatic parlays of the time.

Here’s the issue: the latest rumblings to emerge from the Crimean crisis are mentioning a Russian interest in Transnistria (never heard of that either?–not surprised). It’s a piece of land in between Ukraine and what is now Moldova. I mention these places–you could pick any continent and find similar examples–because the current problems in Eastern Europe increasingly seem to be opening the door to assorted territorial claims. There used to be a word for this. In the 1919-1939 period it was called “irredentism” and considered by some to be a cause of World War II.

The Balkan wars in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s show very clearly the dangers and insanity of the use or threat of force to impose border and nationality changes based on claims of national preference or ethnicity, real or imagined. At the moment this is being driven by Russia, which ought to have learned better from Chechnya. Regardless of the border change there is always a significant minority population, suddenly oppressed, to become restive and resentful. The better solution to changing borders is to eliminate them by fostering political inclusiveness within and among states. Someone should stop a minute and think this through. The world has enough problems already.

The Mission: Crimea, Dien Bien Phu

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.