Herbert London: Resetting Russian Policy

Mar 5, 2014

With Russian armed forces seizing control of the Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, President Putin has sent a loud and clear message to President Obama. In effect, Putin contends the U.S. support for the political upheaval that dislodged a Kremlin ally, means little in the face of the Russian bear clearly intent on reacquiring “the near-abroad” – those nations lost with the dismemberment of the Soviet Union.

In fact, Putin said the breakup of the Soviet Union was the great tragedy of the twentieth century.” He is intent on repairing that “damage” even if it means a “breach of international law,” as President Obama noted. The Ukraine is the linchpin in the Putin scenario. But the question is how does the Obama administration respond. So far, a pattern has emerged in deliberations over Syria, Libya or Iran. The administration tests two extreme hypotheses: let events unfold on their own without direct U.S. intervention or military action. Invariably, the national security team opts for the former.

However, the very establishment of this paradigm is false. There are many alternatives between appeasement and war, alternatives that seemingly are ignored by Obama policymakers.

For example, a show of force may be desirable in letting an enemy know what you are prepared to do. In the Ukraine, the president might consider the deployment of the Sixth Fleet in the Black Sea. Provocative? Yes, but it does demonstrate U.S. resolve in a matter of utmost seriousness.

The Obama administration could freeze all Russian assets in the U.S. thereby putting pressure on the oligarchs who have moved their assets to the West.

NATO could be energized for full mobilization since nations bordering the Ukraine might also be subject to Russian intimidation.

Most significantly, the U.S. could deleverage the Russian trump card, natural gas. At the moment, European nations and the Ukraine are dependent on Russian natural gas as an energy source. The gas is relatively cheap and reliable. It also offers the Russians hard currency and an instrument for extortion. It is the Damoclean sword Putin holds over Kiev.

But suppose the U.S., relying on the recent natural gas discovery in the Mediterranean off the coast of Israel, was to ally with several companies, one well known Australian firm, to convert natural gas into liquid gas which can easily be transported to Europe and the Ukraine. Should this effort be mounted, it would damage Putin precisely where it would hurt most – his pocketbook and his ability to use natural gas as a political weapon.

Still another tactic could be U.S. overtures to China in which discussion about another front in Siberia is explored. The Russian population in this region is declining, while the Chinese population is accelerating. Perhaps the Chinese government can be induced to claim part of this territory as theirs based on the principle – the Russians have adopted – of national and ethnic unification. After all, the justification for military activity in Crimea is the blending of the local Russian population into Mother Russia.

Secretary of State Kerry continues to assert that the Russian military seizure in the Crimea does not harken back to Cold War scenarios. From where I sit, it is almost exactly a military response out of the Cold War playbook. Just as Lenin and Stalin were intent on visions of empire, Putin fancies himself as the man who can restore Russian ascendency on the world stage.

President Obama once called on “reset,” a pledge to alter the relationship between Russia and the United States. Now, of course, is the time for feckless policy to be reset again. This time with the full recognition of Russian ambitions. Putin believes he has found a useful dupe in President Obama, one he has outwitted in Syria, Egypt and Iran. Can President Obama disabuse him of this belief? The stakes are high for Obama and Putin, but as the European landscape indicates, Putin appears to be holding the high cards and is not vulnerable to an American bluff he has seen many times in the past.

Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research,  a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). You can read all of Herb London’s commentaries at www.londoncenter.org

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