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Offline Rapunzel

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Five Questions and Answers That Tell you Everything You Need To Know About US Response to the Ukraine Crisis
Mar. 3, 2014 9:34am
Buck Sexton - National Security Editor   
A fiery libertarian ex-CIA Agent and NYPD Intelligence Division Specialist
tears through the statist arguments of the day and presents an unabashed case for maximum freedom.

Vladimir Putin has already won in Ukraine.

The pro-western movement in Kiev is basically on its own. The only question left is how far Putin will go with his intrusions, including a possible invasion of the pro-Russian East and the de facto bifurcation of the Ukrainian state. Either way, recent events on the ground have made this much abundantly clear: Nobody is going to stop Putin.

President Obama isn’t going to do anything of any consequence. America won’t leap into action over this. We will watch, as will Europe and the rest of the world, in dumbstruck impotence. And while it doesn’t feel good to say it, that’s really the only realistic option we have.

A pro-Russian activist waves the Russian state, upper, and Russian Navy flags outside an entrance to the General Staff Headquarters of the Ukrainian Navy in Sevastopol, Ukraine, Monday, March 3, 2014. Pro-Russian soldiers seem to further cement their control over the strategic region — that also houses the Russian Black Sea Fleet — by seizing a ferry terminal in the Ukrainian city of Kerch about 20 kilometers (12 miles) by boat to Russia, intensifying fears that Moscow will send even more troops into the peninsula. It comes as the U.S. and European governments are trying to figure out ways to halt and reverse the Russian incursion. (AP Photo/Andrew Lubimov)

Here in America, the non-interventionist chorus as well as regional foreign policy experts are quick to point out the myriad reasons why Ukraine is not our problem, and to go beyond minimum action would be a grave mistake. So far, those voices are winning the argument and the Obama administration appears determined to feign resolve and look busy while the fourth-largest country in Europe inches towards civil war or absorption deep into Putin’s orbit.

With that in mind, here are five questions that get at the heart of the Ukraine crisis from a U.S. and European perspective. They explain the limitations on any U.S. response and are effectively a roadmap for how the Obama administration and the rest of the world will react as the Ukraine standoff with Russia continues to evolve.

1) Is Ukraine of essential strategic interest for the United States?

No, and this in many ways makes many other questions and considerations about the Ukraine crisis somewhat superfluous. Ukraine is close to NATO geographically – but not actually part of NATO – and it is merely a transit point (but not a major producer) of natural gas bound for European markets. There is no Suez Canal or Straits of Hormuz-style choke point for global energy markets at risk. So Ukraine with its 45 million people is apparently of less strategic significance than Kuwait was with its three million. Democracy and rule of law sound great, but geopolitics is a cold-blooded business.

Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych winks at Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (R) during a signing ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow, on December 17, 2013. Putin said that the state energy companies of Russia and Ukraine had signed an amended agreement slashing the price Moscow charges its cash-strapped neighbour for natural gas. AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER NEMENOV

2) Is there a way to punish Russia so badly that Putin changes his mind?

Nope. Putin’s Russia is built upon a tripod of nationalism, intimidation, and fossil fuels, and is not easily swayed by so-called “soft power.” Observers have pointed to the obvious similarities between the Russian federation’s modus operandi in Crimea today as compared to its 2008 incursion into Georgia. It looks like Putin is using the same playbook, and as South Ossetia and Abkhazia were annexed in all but name without consequence back then, why wouldn’t Putin stick with his winning formula? He will. The costs for meddling in Georgia were negligible compared to the benefits, and the same will be true from the Kremlin’s perspective on Ukraine.

Even more instructive are the limited U.S. and European options under serious consideration. The responses suggested so far by the “get tough” crowd include freezing some assets, banning overseas travel for certain individuals, and maybe moving the planned G-8 meeting from Sochi. These are the sorts of suggestions that keep think tank analysts employed, and allow our State Department and the EU bureaucrats to feel moderately useful, but in terms of efficacy they amount to shooting a .22 at a T-52.

3) Is Europe really willing to take harsh economic action against Russia anyway?

No way. For all its love of green energy and tiny cars, Europe needs fossil fuel – especially natural gas – and Russia is the single largest supplier to European markets. About a third of all European oil and gas imports comes from Moscow’s pipelines. As much as the Germans may bristle at Putin’s bullying of former Soviet states like Ukraine and general disrespect of international institutions, they want to be able to heat their homes in winter. That’s a powerful incentive to look the other way while Kiev gets cornered.

This Tuesday Jan. 3, 2006 file photo shows a set of pipes in a gas storage and transit point in Boyarka, just outside Kiev. Russia’s vigorous efforts to keep Ukraine within its orbit of influence stem from complex strategic, emotional and cultural issues. Ukraine serves as the main conduit for Russia’s natural gas exports to Europe, and the pricing disputes between the two countries have led to shutdowns in many parts of the continent. (AP Photo/Sergei Chuzavkov, File)

4) Does anybody think that U.S. troops should be deployed into Ukraine?

Not anyone who wants to be taken seriously. The U.S. public, tired of its own military fighting wars of liberation and reconstruction in the Middle East with mixed results, has absolutely no stomach for sending our men and women into a shooting war with Russians on the other side of the battlefield.

Despite this, many observers have pointed to Budapest Memorandum of 1994 ​as a possible anchor to drag the U.S. into Kiev’s mess. That’s not going to happen. The memorandum has no binding force on the U.S. or Britain, isn’t clear on what we would be bound to anyway, and ultimately, who is going to enforce it?

As an aside: Ukraine’s current conundrum serves as a lesson to all states with irredentist neighbors on their borders: if you can ever get your hands on nuclear weapons, keep them.

5) Is there any downside to the U.S. just letting the Ukraine situation play out?

This is where the debate really begins. It seems in the short-term, President Obama will hold some meetings, give a speech or two, but for all intents and purposes, refuse any real action on Ukraine, and it won’t matter one bit for now.

People hold up different national flags as they attend a rally against Russian intervention on Kiev’s Independence square on March 2, 2014. Ukraine said Sunday it would call up all military reservists after President Vladimir Putin’s threat to invade Russia’s neighbour drew a blunt response from US President Barack Obama. The stark escalation in what threatens to become the worst crisis in relations since the Cold War came as pro-Russian forces seized control of key government buildings and airports in the strategic Crimean peninsula. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC

The question of long-term impact on U.S. national security and global stability, however, requires a more complicated if not contentious answer.

An America whose word isn’t trusted and whose influence is waning leaves the world more open to conflict. Obama’s much derided “Leading from Behind” in Libya has transformed into “observing from behind” in Eurasia. The President of the United States – and the Commander-in-Chief of the most powerful military in history – promised grave consequences on Friday afternoon if Putin did exactly what he chose to do mere hours later with his non-lethal invasion of Crimea. Nothing happened. Such brazen slaps in the face to the world’s lone superpower are an indicator of grave troubles down the road.

Today, Ukraine has problems and we don’t have to care. Putin will not stop there, though, and the autocrats of Beijing, Tehran, and other tyrants across the world are closely watching the response of an America that seems uncertain of its role and tired of its principles once we reach the water’s edge.
“The time is now near at hand which must probably determine, whether Americans are to be, Freemen, or Slaves.” G Washington July 2, 1776

Offline Oceander

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The problem is that this is part of precisely the same sort of strategic chess game that was the Cold War.  That means that you have to have had your pieces in motion long before an actual flash-point erupts if you want to have any hope of being anything other than an impotent observer.  Unfortunately, that is where Obama's utter incompetence shows through so badly.  Mr. Obama cannot even think tactically when it comes to foreign affairs - as witness his absolutely idiotic response to Syria - so it shouldn't be any wonder that he cannot think strategically either.  And that is the real tragedy here:  absent a president wise enough to think strategically and, more importantly, retain advisors who can think strategically, US foreign policy will bounce blindly from one crisis to the next, with the US never able to do anything constructive because it has nothing in reserve and has set no pieces to check the moves of its enemies.  That leads to a failure of reputation as fewer and fewer people believe that the US really stands for freedom and liberty, and a failure of power as more and more people realize that they can act contrary to US interests without suffering negative consequences.

Obviously this isn't carte blanc, and if another country moves against a sufficiently vital US interest, then they will suffer consequences.  But the game here - a game that Putin is a grand master at - is tweaking the level of your actions so that you accomplish something of substance to yourself while at the same time keeping the perception of your threat to US interests as low as possible.  For example, Putin could have simply waltzed into Ukraine the way the Soviets waltzed into Czechoslovakia in 1968, with tanks and all, and taken over everything at once.  That would have allowed him to obtain in one fell swoop the goal of fully bringing Ukraine back into the renascent Russian empire; however, the audaciousness of a full invasion like that would have definitely started a "hot" war with Ukraine's armed forces and could very well have led to the military involvement of Western Europe and the US in a supporting capacity, perhaps using some sort of no-fly zone.  That sort of an invasion would have also shocked the Europeans out of complacency and would most likely have triggered full economic sanctions.  Both of those results would have done a lot of damage to Russia, and Putin, both economically and politically (at home and abroad).  So instead Putin carefully calibrated his attack on Ukraine - using the same methods he honed to perfection in Georgia - and managed to take a number of significant steps towards a de facto incorporation of Ukraine back into Russia:  he how has full control over Crimea, which means he has permanently inserted Russia into Ukraine's internal affairs, and which allows him, through threats of further internal violence, to pull the rest of Ukraine along the path he wants them to follow.

Mr. Putin's grasp of international politics is as masterly as it is dastardly.  Not since Reagan have we seen a strategic leader of this caliber; unfortunately, Putin is not a leader of good guys, he's a leader of the evil.
I won't vote for Clinton, but I cannot vote for Trump.  How could I explain to my daughter why I supported a man who sees her as nothing more than a piece of meat, a piece of a$$ for him to grope for his own private pleasure.

"Trump supporter" - the very definition of an SFI

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