The events leading up to the Ukraine crisis and the questionable annexation of the Crimean Peninsula are muddled in half-truths on both sides.
The endemic corruption in Ukraine, coupled with its fragile economy, will hardly make it a poster child for free enterprise and democracy. However, it was a welcome signal that the majority of Ukrainians have opted for a close association with the European Union rather than Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Customs Union. Clearly, this derailed Mr. Putin’s objective of having a pro-Russian government in Kiev.
While Mr. Putin says he will not invade eastern Ukraine, chaos is being created by Russian goons setting the stage for another pretext for forced action. Certainly, 100,000 Russian troops — 40,000 of them deployed along Ukraine’s eastern border — is more than intimidating. Further, it should not be overlooked that all of Russia’s lines of communication to Crimea run through eastern Ukraine.
Mr. Putin has been able to capitalize on events in Ukraine to advance his agenda with little fear of any military opposition. President Obama has made it clear that responding with military force is “beneath” the way he thinks the handling of territorial disputes in the 21st century should be resolved. I am sure this elitist view was well received in China, North Korea, Iran and Cuba, as well as among many of our other potential enemies.
Working through the rhetoric, there is a larger issue that must be addressed; namely, the relevancy of NATO. Since its inception, NATO has been a defensive alliance. While Ukraine is not a member of NATO, other former Warsaw Pact countries, including Poland and the Baltic states, are, and have to be concerned with the uncontested annexation of Crimea.
Further, the abrogation of the 1994 Budapest Agreement raises more questions. In the pact, not only Russia, but the United States and the United Kingdom — both NATO members — guaranteed Ukraine’s sovereignty if it gave up its nuclear weapons.
How did the United States and the United Kingdom plan to meet their obligation under this agreement? It is a matter of credibility. So far, we have turned down Ukraine’s request for military equipment so it could legitimately protect its sovereignty.
In Mr. Obama’s way of thinking, if arms were transferred to the “victim,” Mr. Putin might view such action as provocative. Therefore, the leader of NATO and the free world, transferred field rations, called MREs. How comforting for our friends as well as our potential enemies.
Even though Russia has become a key energy supplier for Germany and the West European grid, its economy is extremely vulnerable to the external demand for its in-ground resources. Compounding that problem is the inherent weakness of its economy, plus its declining Slavic population and a rapidly rising Muslim populace.
Many European Union countries rely on Russia for approximately 30 percent of their energy requirements. Nonetheless, if NATO is to remain relevant, it needs to reassert its fundamental principles and take action that will send an unmistakable message that it will defend itself as well as its newest members.
Such action does not require deploying NATO forces to Ukraine. However, requests for military equipment should be granted so Ukraine can be seen as having a capability to defend its sovereignty.
Key to demonstrating NATO’s determination and solidarity is the execution of visible confidence-building measures. This should include key defensive as well as offensive elements to dissuade Mr. Putin from any follow-on military aggression.
NATO should deploy the latest offensive weapons — F-22s, AWACS, Global Hawks, F-15E, B-2s and Eurofighter Typhoons — and defensive systems such as Patriot and PAC-3 batteries, to carefully selected NATO areas. At least one carrier battle group should be maintained in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Once forces are in place, they need to be exercised in a way that clearly shows NATO solidarity. These exercises also need to include a theaterwide command-and-control exercise. NATO ground forces should also be incorporated as part of the overall exercise program.
The key to demonstrating NATO’s determination and solidarity will not be found in the Saul Alinsky playbook, nor will it be accomplished by “leading from behind.” It will require Mr. Obama to measure up to meet Mr. Putin’s challenge by displaying the necessary leadership NATO deserves. The consequences for failure in meeting this challenge will loom large in the future.
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.