Go It Alone Against Russia?

Many scholars, officials, industry experts and even citizens have expressed concern regarding the foreign policy of the United States.  Setting aside the crisis in Iraq and Syria for a moment, there is still a conflict between Ukraine and Russia.  Did we forget that Russia basically reclaimed a territory in the 21st Century?  President Obama proclaimed that, “there’s a difference between that [a heavy Russian influence] and sending in troops, and because you’re bigger and stronger taking a piece of the country – that is not how international law and international norms are observed in the 21st century.”  However, aside from overt military action, what are the options and next steps for the United States within the Ukraine/Russia conflict?

So far, the United States has issued a series of sanctions and travel bans against prominent Russian officials (which Russia reciprocated) and sanctions against entities associated with these officials.  There has been much talk regarding issuing sectoral sanctions against the Russian economy, specifically its oil and gas exports, which would severely cripple Russia’s finances with the hopes of deterring continued Russian aggression in Ukraine and punish Russia for, according to the legal analysis of some, the illegal annexation of Crimea.  Many officials around the world believe that Crimea is lost to Russia.  Russia’s economy is virtually dependent on oil exports to Europe making it easy to target economically.  However, many major players in Europe such as Germany have raised doubts about issuing these sectoral sanctions for the harm they would cause to Europe as a whole and not just Russia.  Sanctions are a two way street, as experts have pointed out.  By crippling Russia’s oil exports, the whole of Europe, who heavily depend on them, suffer as well.  Speculation combined with the Ukraine/Russia conflict over debts associated to Russian oil company Gazprom (which has cut off Ukraine entirely), has led many European nations to stock up on oil for fear of a shortage.

European reluctance has led US leaders to question what the United States plans to do next.  Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) at a recent hearing on Capitol Hill harshly questioned Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland about options.  Menendez raised concerns about US policy if Europe does not act, “Then will we have the summer lapse and Putin will know that there’s no consequences and the United States will stay on the sidelines, waiting for the Europeans?…What are we waiting for,” said Menendez who was quoted by the Washington Post.  Would the United States want to move forward without a united European coalition?  United States diplomats and members of the administration have expressed their desire to work with Europe to develop a retaliatory plan together.  Many experts, such as Jane Harmon, former member of Congress and President and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson Center, expressed at a separate Senate Committee hearing in June that going it alone with sanctions is not the best option.  Former ambassador James Jeffrey also stated the United States has a good partner in Europe, especially German Chancellor Angela Merkel (though this relationship has become strained due to spying allegations), and the United States should work with its partners.

The underlying tone in the context of the Ukraine/Russia conflict as well as others abroad is the notion of a weak United States.  Many of the president’s detractors have voiced their concern that a “feckless” foreign policy has contributed to strains in alliances, safe havens for terrorists, and an emboldened Vladimir Putin.  Going it alone risks the potential to damage the European economy by issuing harmful sectoral sanctions, which may further strain alliances if not in concert the European nations.  In terms of military options, Ukraine is not a NATO member, and has expressed that they do not want to be.  This means the United States is not obligated by treaty to defend Ukraine from foreign aggression as they would be for say Latvia or other NATO members.  However, the United States has always expressed interest in coming to the aid of nations who cannot defend themselves in the face of aggressors.  Within this larger idealistic policy, the United States can strengthen their alliance with other NATO countries, while using military deterrence to threaten Russia.

The idea of military deterrence was floated by Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Advisor to the Carter administration, in a speech he gave recently.  According to a summary of the speech, Brzezinski indicated. “Russian President Vladimir Putin does not want a messy, violent fight in Ukraine; therefore, he can be deterred if he thinks that further aggression on Ukraine—or beyond Ukraine—will lead to exactly this outcome…European NATO countries, such as the United Kingdom, Germany, and France, need to send troops on rotations to the Baltics—even in symbolic numbers—to augment those that the Americans have already sent. In this diplomacy of deterrence, he [Brzezinksi] said, ‘Symbolism is as important as decisiveness.'”  Again, however, this would require a united coalition, which has been difficult to achieve as several smaller NATO nations have been guilty of not contributing their fair share (NATO members must contribute two percent of their GDP to military expenditures though several nations have fallen below this mark.)  The United States can commit more troops and more money to their NATO allies as a symbolic gesture, which in this case, may prove to be enough.  Ms. Harmon also reiterated this same idea of military deterrence before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The United States would appear to be wedged between hawkish members of its own Congress, skeptical European partners, and those in Ukraine who have been battling against Russian separatists.  If European allies are not willing to go the extra step, how can the United States?  What the United States should do, is develop, alongside European partners, a plan to import oil and gas in the event sectoral sanctions against Russia go through (as I have mentioned in a previous post, this could be a great opportunity for Iran if they are willing to comply with international delegations and give up their “peaceful” nuclear program in exchange for the easing of sanctions, which may allow them to export oil to Europe.  However, this policy is highly idealistic.)

Tides may be turning from an abstract sense after Ukraine signed a landmark trade agreement with the European Union, which was the spark that ignited the Ukraine/Russia fire in the first place.  With Ukraine more closely aligned with Europe, Putin does not want lose them. The Russia troops amassed on the Ukrainian border are troubling and absent an overt Russian invasion of Ukraine (and again the United States does not have an Article 5 NATO commitment to Ukraine), the United States should be careful about military options.  President Obama recently announced that he is nominating John Tefft to serve as the United States ambassador to Russia, a post that has been vacant since February.  This move, pending Senate confirmation, will hope to broker a smoother diplomatic resolve.  The United States should not go it alone and hopefully, the EU will make a larger commitment to Ukraine given recent events.