Crimea is not Armageddon

Coming of political age during the Reagan era, I was predisposed to view the Kremlin as the seat of the Evil Empire. Despite the heady days of perestroika and glasnost kicking off while I was an undergraduate, I remained distrustful. As a young Army officer stationed in Germany at the tail end of the Cold War, I was ready to take on the Red Army at the Fulda Gap. A quarter century later, I scoffed at the Obama administration's "reset" with Russia, seeing it--correctly as it turned out--as a fool's errand. I even defended Mitt Romney's much-derided assertion that Russia was America's "number one geopolitical foe."

I was therefore dismayed but not particularly surprised when Russian troops moved into the Crimea in a blatant act of aggression. It's yet another reminder that Russia is not part of the West and does not share our values or interests. 

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That said, much of the reaction to the crisis has been over-the-top. Normally sage analysts like Zbigniew Brzezinski are drawing comparisons with the Mafia, Adolf Hitler, and Joseph Stalin. One such response, alas, was "Russian invasion of Ukraine demands NATO response," published in this space by my friend and colleague Jorge Benitez, editor of the indispensable NATOSource blog.

Benitez argues that "There is a broad sense in the United States and across the world that Putin's invasion of Ukraine is Obama's Cuban missile crisis." Not only is there little evidence that such a consensus exists--even Sen. John McCain (R-Artiz.) opposes U.S. military intervention--the comparison illustrates how little is at stake. The showdown over Soviet missiles in Cuba was as close as we've come to nuclear Armageddon.  The Strategic Air Command was ordered to DEFCON 2. By contrast, the biggest threat looming here is tossing Russia out of the G-8 and the WTO to go along with not sending a U.S. presidential delegation to the Sochi Paralympic Games.

Nor is it all obvious why this is "the most dangerous crisis in Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall," much less "a watershed in European history." 'After all, the Balkan Wars of the 1990s killed some 130,000 people and displaced nearly 4 million.  Arguably, the August 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia was a bigger deal. Not only was actual bloodshed involved but Russian troops went well into Georgia proper, not just the disputed territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. For now, at least, it looks like Putin will stop with the Crimea.

Brzezinski contends that, "If Ukraine is crushed while the West is simply watching, the new freedom and security in bordering Romania, Poland and the three Baltic republics would also be threatened." Benitez concurs, adding, "Putin's use of force to seize Ukrainian territory has shattered the post-Cold War peace in Europe. Our allies and partners in the region need reassurance that American and NATO commitments remain strong."

Why these fears to be any higher now than in 2008 is beyond me. Ukraine has repeatedly rebuffed overtures to join NATO, and thus clearly falls outside the protection of Article 5. By contrast, Georgia had not only openly courted membership but had been promised eventual membership at the Bucharest Summit five months before the Russian invasion. NATO's failure to act in that case surely did more damage to the credibility of the Alliance among its newest members than the ongoing situation.

Lamentable though Putin’s aggression is, it doesn’t rise to the level of military response from the United States or its NATO allies any more than the 2008 invasion of Georgia, the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, or the 1956 invasion of Hungary. It would be madness to risk a major power war over this crisis.

Kicking Russia out of the G8 or removing it from the WTO are more reasonable steps, which would serve President Obama’s purpose of demonstrating that a Russia that behaves in this manner is not a member in good standing of the international community. So would lesser steps that some have suggested, such as limiting Russian access to visas and other perquisites. They would also be the antithesis of the 2009 “reset,” not quite signaling a new Cold War but putting Russia out in the cold. Given the West’s need for Russian cooperation on matters such as Iran’s nuclear program and the impending exodus from Afghanistan, that’s a call that should be made soberly rather than in a fit of pique.

Joyner is an associate professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council. These views are his own.