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LYONS: Russia hungers for Ukraine

U.S. looks away while Moscow muscles Kiev

- - Friday, April 12, 2013

With North Korea continuing to draw world attention with its bellicose threats of launching nuclear ballistic-missile attacks against the United States and South Korea, we cannot afford to overlook what Russia has been doing.

While given scant coverage and basically no reaction from the Obama administration, Vladimir Putin's Russia is taking an increasingly provocative stand against global U.S. interests, including probes of American air defenses, and Moscow is assuming a more assertive regional role from the North Pacific to the Middle East to Latin America. Likewise, Russia's growing military relationship with China and Iran further exposes the folly of the Obama administration's indifference to America's shrinking strategic conventional and nuclear posture, to the detriment of our security and that of our allies.

Moscow's recent assertiveness took an alarming turn with the unannounced launch of significant naval operations by the Russian Black Sea Fleet, which took the militaries of other countries in the region completely by surprise. With no advance notice or apparent detection by our intelligence community, the Obama administration was unaware of Moscow's intentions until warships of the Black Sea Fleet suddenly sailed from their home port in Sevastopol. According to Russian media sources, naval forces taking part included more than 30 ships, more than 7,000 personnel, some 250 armored vehicles, around 50 artillery pieces and up to 20 fighter jets and helicopters.

One obvious psychological objective of the surprise Black Sea maneuvers was to punctuate Russia's return to the Mediterranean in support of the pro-Iranian Syrian regime of Bashar Assad. No one should miss the obvious intimidation directed against countries in the Black Sea region itself. It should be remembered that the Black Sea Fleet was instrumental in Russia's 2008 war with Georgia over the efforts of pro-U.S. President Mikhail Saakashvili to regain control of the secessionist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Following Russia's massive attack and defeat of Georgian forces, Moscow recognized the independence of both regions.

Perhaps the biggest target of Moscow's move is Ukraine. In fact, the Black Sea Fleet's home port of Sevastopol is not even on Russian territory, but rather on the Crimean Peninsula, which is part of Ukraine. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, elected in 2010 with Moscow's support, is hardly anti-Russian, and has even withdrawn Ukraine's earlier bid for NATO membership.

Indeed, one of Mr. Yanukovych's first moves as president was to extend for 25 years Moscow's lease on Sevastopol, in exchange for price concessions on Russian natural gas, on which Ukraine depends. Even with that reduction, however, Ukraine pays an unusually high price for Russian gas, which is looking even more unattractive in light of Kiev's plans to exploit domestic shale-gas reserves in cooperation with Western companies using "fracking" technology.

Energy also lies at the heart of another ultimatum Moscow has delivered to Kiev: Ukraine must withdraw from the European Union's "Energy Community" organization. Moreover, Ukraine is being pressured to integrate its state-owned gas company, Naftogaz-Ukrainy, with Russia's colossal Gazprom. Moscow also is seeking to coerce a reluctant Ukraine into joining its own "customs union," currently made up of only Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, and to block Ukraine's economic integration with the European Union, an integration the United States has long preferred.

In short, Moscow is taking every opportunity to strong-arm Ukraine back into its geopolitical and economic camp. The Black Sea maneuvers and economic pressures on Kiev are from the same playbook. Rest assured, this is not a result of any provocation or unfriendliness from Ukraine, which has gone out of its way to accommodate its larger neighbor.

Predictably, the Obama administration's response to Moscow's strategic initiative has been one of passivity. With President Obama's recent cancellation of ballistic-missile defenses for NATO Europe, could this be another indication of the "flexibility" he promised to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in the fall of 2012? Instead of focusing on Moscow's efforts to reabsorb Ukraine in fact, if not in name, the U.S. State Department has given priority to pressuring Kiev on issues relating to democracy, human rights and the rule of law areas in which problems exist, but where Ukraine still stands head and shoulders over Mr. Putin's Russia. Top among these is the demand that Kiev release former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, sentenced to seven years' imprisonment for negotiating the disadvantageous gas deal with the Russians in the first place.

Ukraine's domestic shortcomings are valid concerns. In the face of Moscow's continuing provocations, however, the Obama administration would do well to reorder its priorities. Allowing Moscow to drag Ukraine into a revived quasi-USSR relationship is not in U.S. interests.

James A. Lyons, a retired U.S. Navy admiral, was commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations.