Russian Bear Rising

After swallowing Crimea, Putin's emboldened regime looks for more prey.

putThe Russian Federation has annexed Crimea following its full-scale military occupation of the peninsula.  Ukrainian soldiers are exiting and pro-Russian soldiers have assumed control over the last ships and bases once controlled by Ukraine's military. Russia is now massing thousands of forces just across the Ukraine border, posing a clear and present threat to the eastern portion of Ukraine, at the very least.

Despite empty promises that he has no intention of seizing additional parts of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin laid down the pretext for just such an action in his speech last week to the Russian Parliament announcing his decision to annex Crimea. Commenting on the devastating effects of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Putin said “Millions of people went to bed in one country and awoke in different ones, overnight becoming ethnic minorities in former Union republics, while the Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders.” It’s the same rationale he used in justifying the occupation of parts of Georgia in 2008, and would be the same rationale to justify occupation of eastern Ukraine and areas of the Baltic States such as Estonia.

The United Nations today, at its highest levels, is showing timidity in confronting head-on Russia’s violation of the United Nations Charter, specifically Article II (Clause 4) which states: “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”

The Security Council is paralyzed by Russia’s exercise of its veto power to defeat a resolution that would have affirmed the UN Charter principles and declared the Crimean referendum held under the watchful eyes of armed Russian soldiers to be invalid. Even so, the Secretary General of the United Nations has the moral authority to speak out and bring truth to power when he sees the shredding of the UN Charter in front of his eyes. Sadly, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has refrained from declaring Russia’s actions illegal, preferring instead to speak more obliquely about the need for each member state to abide by all of the principles of the UN Charter including respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity, independence and unity of all member states.

By contrast, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan saw no problem in denouncing the entry of military forces from the United States and its coalition partners into Iraq in 2003 as “illegal.” The military action “was not in conformity with the UN Charter from our point of view,” Kofi Annan said during a 2004 interview with BBC.

Why can’t Secretary General Ban Ki-moon make as clear and direct a statement about another Security Council Permanent Member’s actions, which involved both the threat and the actual use of force against the territorial integrity and political independence of a sovereign nation?  In reply to repeated questions by UN correspondents asking for clarification of the Secretary General’s position on whether Russia’s actions conformed with the UN Charter, the response from the Office of the Spokesperson of the Secretary General has consisted of ambiguous generalities, such as the following: “both SGs, dealing with different situations and different circumstances, made clear the importance of resolving disputes in accordance with the principles of the UN Charter. That is what Kofi Annan was indicating when he talked about
how the actions in Iraq were not taken in conformity with the Charter, and that is what Ban Ki-moon has been emphasizing when he pushes for the current crisis to be resolved in conformity with the Charter's principles.”

That answer sounds as if Russia had not already acted, ignoring Ban Ki-moon’s entreaties. But Putin has swallowed Crimea and is maneuvering for more territory at Ukraine’s expense.

Russia and its defenders argue that the United States is hypocritical when it raises international law concerns. How, they argue, can the U.S. square its self-proclaimed adherence to international law with its actions in Kosovo and Iraq?

As to Kosovo, the answer is simple. The United States did not occupy Kosovo. Kosovo is under United Nations administration pursuant to a UN Security Council resolution that Russia supported.  Putin’s Russia, on the other hand, occupied and then absorbed Crimea on the basis of a local referendum that was neither permitted under the Ukraine constitution nor was conducted in a free, transparent manner without the presence of Russian occupying soldiers.

As for Iraq, the question isn’t why self-interested countries, whether the United States or any other member state, could be accused of violating international law when it was in their national interest to do so.  The question, from the standpoint of the UN Charter, is why one Secretary General provided his opinion as to the legality of what the United States did in Iraq in forthright terms, while the current Secretary General is effectively giving Russia a free ‘get out of jail’ card with regard to its actions in Ukraine. This is all the more disturbing since Iraq today is a free country while Crimea is now in the belly of the Russian bear. The U.S. and its coalition partners at least tried to work through the United Nations Security Council and believed they had the legal authority under international law to act pursuant to a succession of Security Council resolutions culminating in Security Council Resolution 1441. Resolution 1441 found Saddam Hussein’s regime to be in material breach of all its obligations under the many previous Security Council resolutions and gave Hussein a final opportunity to comply or face “serious consequences.” In this context, since the resolution was brought under Chapter VII of the UN Charter which allows for the use of military force to enforce compliance with Security Council resolutions, “serious consequences” could only mean military force, since sanctions had already failed to pressure Saddam Hussein into full compliance.

Russia, on the other hand, had no basis for its actions in any previous Security Council resolutions. Indeed, it stood alone in voting no to veto a proposed Security Council resolution that opposed what Russia was planning to do in Crimea. Russia also violated its own agreements with Ukraine, including the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 under which Ukraine agreed to give up nuclear weapons on its territory in return for guarantees of its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Russia, along with the United Kingdom and the United States, agreed to the following:

"1. The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine, in accordance with the principles of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine;

2. The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defence or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations."

Russia has violated just about every pertinent clause of the Budapest Memorandum. Moreover, the basing agreement between Ukraine and Russia in Crimea, which Putin has cited as a rationale for Russian military forces being in Crimea in the first place, limited the deployment of Russian forces outside their base except for specified areas and under the Ukrainian military supervision. Russia blatantly violated this agreement by moving its troops around Crimea at will and using them to interfere in Ukrainian domestic affairs.

All of this is academic as far as Crimea is concerned. It’s now part of Russia by virtue of Russia’s “might makes right” strategy for territorial expansion. The problem is what Putin may choose to do in the future after already starting to feel the rush of restored Russian glory. This will depend in part on what he sees as the likely U.S. and European responses.

President Obama has imposed sanctions on a number of individuals, some of whom are close associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and on a Russian bank. He said that more sanctions may be on the way if Russia does not de-escalate, including sanctions that could target Russia’s energy, finance, arm sales and trade sectors. The European Union has also imposed some sanctions. The G-8 countries - Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, the U.S. and Russia — are now the G-7 with the suspension of Russia from the exclusive economic club. There will be no G-8 summit meeting in Sochi, as Russia had hoped, after its success in pulling off the Sochi Winter Olympics Games.

However, President Obama evidences little sense of urgency in addressing the growing geopolitical danger that Russia poses.  For example, speaking at a brief news conference in The Hague on March 25th where he was attending a summit meeting on nuclear security, his first news conference since Russia moved to annex Crimea, Obama said:

"Ukraine has been a country which Russia had enormous influence for decades, since the break-up of the Soviet Union, and we have considerable influence on our neighbors, we generally don't need to invade them in order to have a strong cooperative relationship with them. The fact that Russia felt compelled to go in militarily and laid bare these violations of international law indicates less influence not more.”

Obama believes that Russia is too weak today to be more than one of many challenges he has to worry about.  He added that he is “much more concerned when it comes to our security with the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan."  I couldn’t agree more, especially as one who lives in Manhattan. However, Obama’s willingness to negotiate for months on end with the Iranian regime while the mullahs move forward on their nuclear and missile delivery programs does not instill confidence that he has any more sense of urgency in dealing decisively with the Iranian nuclear threat than he does with Russia’s geo-political threat. Nor does his decision to drastically reduce U.S. military spending.

Russia is certainly weaker than it was in the heyday of the Soviet Union. But it is still a nuclear power in its own right, and Putin has shown little hesitancy in dealing with rogue states like Iran and Syria in addition to his expansionist moves closer to home. His willingness to break agreements to which Russia was a party, dealing with nuclear proliferation and the use of military force such as the Budapest Memorandum, should put a kibosh on any “flexibility” that Obama might have liked to show on missile defense to continue his failed “re-set” of relations with Russia.

Nobody is seriously calling for the United States to invade Russia or to put U.S. boots on the ground in Ukraine. But in addition to ramping up economic sanctions that begin to take a real toll on the Russian economy and expelling (not just suspending) Russia from important multilateral economic groups like the G-8, there are other meaningful signals that Obama could send Putin to make him think twice before making more aggressive moves.

For example, the U.S. can provide some arms to the Ukrainian military for self-defense purposes as well as accelerate the delivery of much needed economic aid.  As discussed in an insightful Stratfor report dated March 25, 2014 entitled “Russia Examines Its Options for Responding to Ukraine,” the U.S. could embark on a new containment strategy by providing support for a regional alliance of countries bordering or relatively close to Russia that may consider themselves more vulnerable to Russian pressure in the foreseeable future than the further away nations of Western Europe.  Candidates for such a regional alliance, as an overlay on the much larger NATO alliance, could include Poland, Romania, and Azerbaijan, as suggested in the Stratfor report.  The regional alliance might also include the Czech Republic, Hungary, and the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. American support could include financial aid, funding for their own military defenses and the installation of missile defense systems in strategic locations within the territory of the members of this regional alliance. Finally, the Obama administration should reinforce the strategy of energy independence from Russia by easing the way for exports of natural gas to Ukraine and Western Europe and contributing funding (possibly with the assistance of multilateral organizations such as the World Bank or the UN Development Programme) to develop environmentally safe European energy sources and to construct a pipeline from energy-rich Azerbaijan to Ukraine and other parts of Europe.

What is happening instead? The United States appears weaker than Russia. While not true, of course, perception is often the reality on the world stage.  Our allies are losing confidence in American leadership and our enemies are unafraid. Respect for U.S. resolve is alarmingly low among friend and foe alike. Adding insult to injury, even Hamid Karzai, the petulant president of Afghanistan – a country that itself was invaded by the Soviet Union and for which the U.S. has sacrificed lives and treasure to help secure the Afghans’ own future – is piling on. Siding with the likes of Syria and Venezuela, Karzai has publicly supported Russia’s occupation and absorption of Crimea. How low we have sunk on President Obama’s watch!