A Military Build-up is the Wrong Way to Deal with Russia

March 3, 2014 Updated: April 23, 2016

Ukraine is on “the brink of disaster,” according to Ukrainian interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.  The United Nations and world leaders have been meeting around the clock to discuss how to address the current situation.  The most sensible solution at the moment seems to be to hit Russia economically, not militarily.

Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated yesterday on the Sunday Talk-Show circuit that the United States will not respond militarily.  Instead, Kerry suggested economic sanctions, hindering potential trade deals that Russia’s developed, as well as possibly dismissing Russia from the G8 (or group of eight, consisting of the United States, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Japan, the United Kingdom, and Russia.)  In addition, some US lawmakers suggest building up missile defense systems located in Poland and the Czech Republic.

The latter would be a mistake at this early, yet critical, stage in the conflict.  Russian President Vladimir Putin thrives on such threats.  Such a build-up could bring the two world powers back to a Cold War style arms build-up, which the United States has worked hard to dismantle.  Putin, a former KGB member and Cold Warrior, would likely view such a military move as western escalation threatening his legitimacy and could cause further provocation.  Putin claims he is merely protecting Russian people and assets in the Crimean Peninsula, which is a pro-Russian region of Ukraine and the only warm water Russian port.

Recent reports, however, indicate the European Union is unlikely to follow the US lead in issuing sanctions.  The EU potentially has a lot to lose from sanctioning Russia, given Russia’s economic influence.  Russia is also a major global exporter of oil.  The EU, instead, is pushing for peace talks between Kiev officials and their counterparts in Russia.  This method is unlikely to succeed given the general disdain the Ukrainian people and the interim government holds towards Moscow.  The current unrest in Ukraine is attributed to a Ukrainian-Russian financial deal, which was unpopular in Ukraine because it allied them more with Russia than Europe.  The east-west schism is too great to overcome at this juncture and other avenues must be pursued.

Russia has violated several international laws with their “invasion” of Crimea.  Ukraine is attempting to direct all their available funds toward their military but their economic situation is dismal.  With Russian troops holding control of the Crimean region, military tension would seem to deter talks.  With the economic and military imbalance, Ukraine has little leverage with which to negotiate a deal with Russia.

There must be a concerted effort among international leaders.  The EU’s virtual standstill approach provides some legitimacy to US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland’s inappropriate comments.  Concrete action must be taken against Russia who, as Secretary Kerry stated, is not acting as a G8 nation should.

The United States along with global partners can isolate Russia further.  Secretary Kerry believes Russia’s actions have isolated them but a growing global coalition against them would help.  All diplomatic and peaceful options must be taken first before a build-up of arms.  While many lawmakers believe that simply building up is a precautionary measure and does not necessarily indicate military intervention, it is not clear Russia will read it that same way.  However, history demonstrates that when countries backs’ are against the wall economically, they have no choice but to react militarily.  This was demonstrated by Japan during World War II when they faced harsh economic isolation and seemingly had no other choice.  Whether or not Russia will react the same way is hard to say but sanctioning them will provide greater leverage to world powers and isolate Russia.

Furthermore, the US cannot lead a military coalition alone.  With President Obama trying to get off a “perpetual war footing,” the last thing the US needs is to get involved in another armed conflict.  The FY 2015 defense cuts have come under serious scrutiny recently for downsizing the military and possibly shutting down bases abroad.  Hawks in Congress do not want to see the US military might decline.  However, the US already spends more money than the world’s top military spenders combined.  Military power does not always translate to spending.  Last Friday, conservative pundit William Kristol stated on “Real Time with Bill Maher” that being the world’s police is not cheap.  If the current crisis in Ukraine comes to a military escalation, the US should assist on a small scale but clearly, being the world’s police for the last quarter century has taken its toll on the US economy, military families, and most of all, soldiers with several deployments.

In order to avoid disaster, President Obama must make good on his word and punish Russia somehow.  Next, the EU and UN must join in and back the people of Ukraine.  Despite the futility of UN solutions given Russia’s veto power, it is important they provide moral and humanitarian support.  Russia must feel isolated so that it can come to the negotiating table.  Last, Ukraine must receive the economic help it needs at the moment.  Their society is spiraling out of control and the interim government has few options.  There is a potential IMF bailout in the future but, the Ukrainian government has to ensure that reforms are forthcoming and they must demonstrate their social stability first.  It is important not to antagonize Russia with military arms build-ups because the implications could be disastrous.

Immediate military action is not necessarily on the table and there is much speculation of what could happen.  While it may come to military intervention eventually, it is important to try other options.  The US cannot afford another costly military venture and the casualties in the region could be great.  Secretary Kerry is headed to Kiev this week and thus far in his tenure at the State Department, he has demonstrated to be a fierce negotiator and supporter of diplomacy.  Hopefully he can aid his foreign counterparts into brokering a peaceful solution.