The US response to the Crimea crisis

By John Mecklin | March 4, 2014


As a Russian military siege of Ukrainian military installations in Crimea continued, Russian and Western leaders seemed to occupy separate policy universes. President Vladmir Putin and his administration's diplomats contended that Russia had responded to a political coup in Ukraine, sending thousands of Russian troops to take effective control of Crimea because ethnic Russians there were being set upon by Ukranian extremists. Meanwhile, US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Kiev, bearing a $1 billion American loan guarantee, offers of technical financial help, and accusations that Russia was trying to achieve its policy goals in Crimea "at the end of a barrel of a gun." 

The Crimean crisis seemed to pause this week, with Putin ordering troops involved in military exercises inside Russia near Ukraine to return to base, even as Russian forces for most intents and purposes occupied Crimea. While leaders considered next steps, the Bulletin asked a panel of American experts to offer their suggestions on the best short-term US response to the Ukraine situation, and on how US policy toward Russia should change in the longer term as a result of events in Crimea. The experts seemed to agree that the US response should not be military. From there, the advice about a fluid, dangerous, and unpredictable situation diverged widely.

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Ivanka Barzashka, Centre for Science and Security Studies, King's College, London, and affiliate of Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation, research associate, EXPERT COMMENTARY

The issue in the unfolding crisis is not Crimea’s independence but the future of Ukraine as a whole, and Russia’s influence in the “near abroad.” The immediate objective should be to prevent a military escalation of the crisis and promote the resolution of concerns through negotiations and democratic process.

Ukraine has so far been successful in avoiding provocation. President Vladimir Putin’s March 4, 2014 press conference is a sign that Russia may be softening its stance. Putin conceded that ousted Ukrainian President Yanukovych has no political future and expressed support for May elections. He claimed armed forces in Crimea are local militias, not Russian troops, denied that Russia had trained those militias, explained that the Russian snap military drills had nothing to do with the crisis, and reserved the right to use force as a “last resort.” President Obama may be right that Putin “is not fooling anyone,” but the United States should provide Moscow a face-saving path to de-escalation while applying pressure to ensure that Russian forces retreat. Addressing Russian concerns directly would further undermine any hidden agenda.

The United States and Russia seem to agree that Ukrainians should decide their own future through democratic elections. Euro-Maidan protestors may be right to distrust corrupt politicians, but power should not go to whoever shouts the loudest. Neither should the unity of Ukraine come at all costs. If Crimeans truly want independence, then they should determine that through a referendum, like Scotland, and invite international observers.

Russia justifies its actions with the need to protect ethnic Russians in Ukraine. US Secretary of State John Kerry said that Russian minorities are not “under siege,” but the United States should assure Moscow that it too has a vested interest in protecting the rights of minorities: There are nearly a million ethnic Bulgarians, Romanians, Hungarians, Poles and Germans in Ukraine—some of whom are EU passport holders, and Ukrainian nationalist sentiment is not purely a fiction.

The United States has threatened sanctions, suspended its participation in the G-8 summit in Sochi, and ”put on hold” all military-to-military cooperation with Russia, but President Obama should resist calls to break off all engagement with Moscow. The current crisis should be viewed as a temporary problem—not the beginning of a new bipolar world order. Assuming a Russian expansionist vision may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

William Green Miller, senior advisor to Search for Common Ground's US-Iran program and a senior public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, former US Ambassador to Ukraine, EXPERT COMMENTARY

When I was sent to Kyiv as ambassador in 1993, the first priority given to me by President Clinton was to persuade the government of the newly independent Ukraine to give up its nuclear arsenal, the third largest concentration of strategic nuclear weapons in the world, largely aimed at the United States. 

Ukraine had already committed itself to become a non-nuclear weapons state in 1990, when the Ukrainian parliament adopted its Declaration of the Principles of State Sovereignty. In November of 1993, Ukraine's parliament resolved that Ukraine would give up its nuclear arsenal provided that the United States and Russia, in turn, would protect Ukraine from any military, political, or economic threats to its sovereignty, to its territorial integrity, or to the well-being of its people. An agreement on these principles was signed in the Kremlin in Moscow on January 14, 1994 following a working negotiation.

I was present at the working sessions and the ceremony and dinner that followed in the Kremlin. The discussions were frank and far-ranging and considered carefully the possibility of threats to Ukrainian sovereignty. The Budapest Memorandum of December 5, 1994 further developed the principles of the Trilateral Agreement. Clearly, Ukraine was concerned, deeply worried, about a possible threat from Russia fueled by Russian nationalist extremists which, in fact, materialized almost immediately thereafter in Crimea. There were complicated disputes about the disposition of the Soviet Union's Black Sea fleet and Soviet-era military bases that remained in Crimea. A puppet Independent Republic of Crimea was created with the active support of Moscow and behaved in a similar manner to what we are witnessing in Crimea today. 

In accord with the 1994 Trilateral Agreement and the subsequent Budapest Memorandum and Article 51 of the UN Charter, then-Presidents Clinton, Yeltsin, and Kuchma were able to work together to defuse the danger. The Independent Republic of Crimea dissolved, and its president and prime minister fled Ukraine. 

There is great danger that war could break out as a consequence of the invasion of Crimea and other Russian actions in Ukraine. President Obama, President Putin, and President Yatsenyuk should meet along with the heads of the signatory nations of the Trilateral Agreement and the Budapest Memorandum. They should meet in accord with Article 51 of the UN Charter and seek the help of the leaders of the UN and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe to find ways, face to face, to remove the danger, keep the peace, and avert catastrophic war. 

William Tobey, Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and former deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration, senior fellow, EXPERT COMMENTARY

In the Ukraine crisis, President Obama faces the most severe national security test of his administration. The results of his examination will be graded not only in Moscow, but also in Tehran, Damascus, and Pyongyang, and by US allies around the world. The crisis confronts the President with one tactical and two strategic problems.

The first strategic problem is restoring his own and US credibility. Regrettably, that credibility has been squandered in Afghanistan with simultaneous announcement of a surge and a future retreat, in Egypt with a schizophrenic policy, in Iran with multiple and moving redlines, and in Syria with a vacillating policy that incredibly left Bashar Assad in a stronger position after US threats to use force against him. When the President speaks of punishment and “costs” attached to failure to comply with arms control and nonproliferation agreements and violations of international law, we cannot afford to have other nations doubt his resolve. A steadfast response to the Ukraine crisis would be a first step toward rebuilding firm knowledge among allies and adversaries alike that the United States will vigorously defend its interests and values. 

The tactical problem is how to support Ukraine and deter Russia to prevent the crisis from deepening. Secretary Kerry’s visit to Kiev is a good start. He must also build a diplomatic coalition that will support the principles of democracy, territorial integrity, and self-determination for Ukraine, backed by financial support from the International Monetary Fund, the European Union (EU), and the United States. If Kiev is willing, economic association agreements with the EU should move forward, even if a military alliance with NATO should not. 

As for deterring Russia, the G-8 meeting should be moved from Sochi, with President Putin's invitation to attend made dependent on a stand-down of Russian forces and no further aggression. Work underway to impose financial sanctions and travel limits on Russian leaders who planned and executed the aggression should proceed. The sale of two French helicopter assault ships to be delivered to Russia this year and next should be cancelled. The markets have already voted against the Kremlin’s action, forcing a 150 basis point rise in interest rates, which could drive Russia’s economy into recession. Worse will come, if the crisis persists.

The second strategic problem facing President Obama is to prepare for a different relationship with Russia. His “reset” policy failed because it was based on the false assumption that problems in US-Russian relations were primarily America’s fault. We should not seek a second Cold War; indeed, we should make clear that we prefer not to repeat that very costly conflict. We must, however, make clear that we recognize a pattern of Russian hostility to American interests and values and will prepare accordingly. 

Now is a time for American leadership—and not from behind.

Greg Thielmann, Arms Control Association, and former director of the Strategic, Proliferation, and Military Affairs Office of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, senior fellow, EXPERT COMMENTARY

President Vladimir Putin has attempted to exploit the political instability in Ukraine through the use of Russian military forces to compromise the sovereignty and integrity of a sovereign country in open violation of international law, the explicit commitments given to Ukraine in the 1994 deal securing Ukraine’s non-nuclear status, and contradicting his own oft-stated justification for supporting such reprehensible leaders as Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

As President Obama has said, such behavior will have costs. Although the negative impact on Russia’s legitimacy and prestige is immediate, it is necessary for the United States, the European Union, and the international community to ensure that the long-term potential costs are also clearly understood.

With all of the anguished deliberations in the West about coordinating responses to Russia’s blatant and illegal power grab in the Crimea, there is, fortunately, little discussion of military responses. Along with the proximity of Ukraine to Russia and the bonds of history and ethnicity which unites so many of their citizens, the existence of US and Russian nuclear weapons also plays a role in discouraging Western military intervention. Without prejudice to the desirability of pursuing a nuclear weapons-free world, one can readily acknowledge that these arsenals introduce an element of caution as well as risk to the calculations of Western leaders.

At the same time, the bloat in the current US and Russian nuclear arsenals that persist so long after the fall of the Berlin Wall has been exposed as having no utility, just as the Cold War alert postures are shown to be archaic. Does anyone believe that the widening US lead in operationally deployed warheads under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (now nearly 300) confers any useful leverage for Washington in dealing with Moscow over Ukraine? Does anyone think that Russia would be emboldened if the United States maintained “only” 1,000 warheads as President Obama has proposed?

While the United States and the EU are already moving to impose sanctions and political retaliation against Russia to compel Putin to withdraw his forces, the most useful long-term response would be to extend to Ukraine the kind of economic and political help that facilitates good governance and greater independence from Moscow. Kiev must be persuaded that it made the right decision in its early days of independence to forego the nuclear weapons option—a message that needs reinforcement in many corners of today’s world.

Graham Allison, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government., director, EXPERT COMMENTARY

What’s the good news about Ukraine?  No nukes. 

Unlike 1993, when 2,000 strategic nuclear weapons sat atop intercontinental ballistic missiles aimed at targets in America, today Ukraine has zero nuclear weapons. 

Unlike 2010, when 15 nuclear weapons-worth of highly enriched uranium remained at risk in Ukraine, today Ukraine is nuclear weapons material-free.

The strategies and actions that produced a nuclear-free Ukraine—including the Nunn Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program that provided wherewithal for the former, and the Nuclear Security Summits that provided an action-forcing process for the latter—offer clues for the Obama administration to consider as it marches to the third Nuclear Security Summit in the Hague on March 24.

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