Appropriate U.S. Response to Russia

Thomas F. Stephenson (Ambassador to Portugal, 2007-2009)

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Post World War II history suggests convincingly that the best way to deal with Russian aggression is by demonstrating the strength and will to respond in a forceful fashion. Obvious examples are the strong manner in which President Kennedy dealt with Premier Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the way President Reagan interacted with Mr. Gorbachev at Reykjavik and in its aftermath as he laid the groundwork for the end of the Cold War and critical arms reduction agreements. Interacting with Mr. Putin, however, may well be even more challenging than dealing with either Khrushchev or Gorbachev as Putin gives all the indications of being the consummate bully. The only thing he understands or respects is strength and force, and little so far in the conduct of this Administration demonstrates the will power to take strong action. In fact time and again, the approach of “leading from behind” and “too little too late” has undermined whatever credibility we had with Mr. Putin at the beginning of 2009. Let’s review how we got to where we are currently in Ukraine and Syria.

To be fair to the current Administration, the preceding Administration had not provided a strong precedent, as it did little to prevent Russia under Medvedev from carving out South Ossetia and Abkhazia from the sovereign country of Georgia. But as Mr. Putin reclaimed the presidency of Russia in 2012, he had already observed 1) the absence of any supportive response from the Obama Administration to the Green Revolution in Iran in 2009, 2) the cancellation, under pressure from Russia, of a promised missile defense system in Poland, 3) very modest support for the French led actions surrounding the overthrow of Gadhafi in Libya in 2011, and 4) the total failure to enforce the red line drawn in Syria regarding the use by Assad of chemical weapons in 2012. Why wouldn’t Mr. Putin doubt our resolve and have no compunction or concern about taking the actions that he has in Ukraine and Syria?

Clear commitment to and demonstration of strength with only very judicious actual use of force are critical to convince the bullies of this world like Mr. Putin that the United States has the resolve and the ability to turn back inappropriate and irresponsible acts of aggression. I’ve had the privilege of listening many times to former Secretary of State George Shultz talk about how he and President Reagan chose to deal with such acts of unwanted aggression during the Reagan Administration. They, of course, took steps to restore our military strength, but they used very limited force only three times following the tragic bombing of our marine barracks in Beirut in 1983. We used a very modest amount of military force in Grenada very shortly after the Beirut bombing to rescue 300 Americans being held hostage there, we executed a surgical strike against Gadhafi in retaliation for an attack on our forces in Berlin in 1986, and in a very crisp response to mining activities by Iran in the Persian Gulf in 1987 we sank an Iranian ship that was deploying illegal mines after removing and immediately freeing all Iranian sailors on board. In all three instances a clear message was delivered. An attack on the United States and its allies will receive a proportionate response quickly and decisively.

Unfortunately, little that we have done so far with regard to Russian aggression in Ukraine or Syria has been either timely or appropriately proportionate. In Syria there was a point in time when one could discern the good guys from the bad guys and provide equipment, training, and support sufficient perhaps to enable the opposition to overthrow Assad. Creation of a “no fly zone” was an option recommended by a number of foreign policy experts, including former Secretary Clinton, but was never acted upon by the Administration. By the time we’d fiddled around for months and allowed the Russians to play the key role in negotiating the removal, supposedly, of all chemical weapons from Syria, we’d lost most of the leverage we might have had or been able to obtain, and Russia was in the driver’s seat in terms of protecting their friend Assad. ISIL/Islamic State has obviously complicated enormously the situation in Syria and clearly in Aleppo, but Russia has a very strong presence in Syria today and will be very hard to dislodge, largely because of “too little, too late” on our part. There is still some possibility, however, that it’s not too late to change the current course of events in Syria. A ‘no fly zone” and some sort of “safe-haven” enforcement could still improve the situation in Syria, but it will take resolve on our part and create risk of escalation that we have been unwilling to assume to date.

The situation in Ukraine is clearly very different. Putin’s aggressive actions to carve up and usurp as much of Ukraine as he can is all part of his longer range aspiration to recreate substantial parts of the Soviet Union or at least reestablish Russian influence, if not total dominance, in these neighboring countries. Our pathetically weak response to these actions in Ukraine have or will only encourage this type of aggression in the Baltic States initially and prospectively in other parts of Eastern Europe. Once again the impact of “too little, too late” is clearly being demonstrated. While our diplomats continue to participate in agonizingly unproductive discussions, Mr. Putin is shoring up his military positions in this greater theatre and will no doubt continue to use the excuse of protecting native Russians as he pursues his goals of territorial reclamation. As the remaining areas of Ukraine not yet under Russian control observe the lack of serious U.S. assistance in their plight, it must appear as though it is only a matter of time before they too are annexed by Russia.

Diplomacy and negotiation have been only very modestly successful at best to date with Russia relating to the terribly troubling developments in both Syria and the Ukraine. What incentive does Mr. Putin have to negotiate with us and our allies, when we demonstrate little evidence that we will back up our periodic threats with force. Recent shoring up and redeployment of NATO forces in the Baltics and Poland is a positive step, but we need to return to the Reagan-Shultz approach of saying what we mean in our interactions with Mr. Putin and being prepared to show that we mean what we say with decisive use of measured and proportionate force.

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