Don’t Just Do Something

I’ve already mentioned the Washington Post’s scathing editorial against the Obama Administration’s reactions to the situation unfolding in Ukraine. Now the editors of the Wall Street Journal come out in a similar vein, albeit with more specific recommendations. They suggest restricting Russian banks’ access to the international banking system (something the Europeans will all but certainly oppose) and moving ships into the Black Sea:

Mr. Obama and the West must act, rather than merely threaten, because it’s clear Mr. Putin believes the American President’s words can’t be taken seriously. After the 2008 invasion of Georgia, President Obama pretended the problem was Dick Cheney and tried to “reset” relations with Moscow. Mr. Putin has defied the civilized world on Syria and Mr. Obama rewarded him by making Russia a partner in phony peace talks. Mr. Putin gave NSA leaker Edward Snowden asylum over U.S. objections, and he got away with that too.

I think that’s almost exactly the wrong advice. Moving ships into the Black Sea would be seen as a provocation and would maximize the likelihood of an unfortunate incident. I would prefer that the president not even threaten since there’s little in the way of an effective response that he can make and idle threats are worse than silence.

Here are some things to chew on while thinking about the escalating crisis in Ukraine:

  1. Russia has legitimate interests in Ukraine in the form of military and commercial ports, historical ties, millions of ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine, and millions of ethnic Ukrainians who speak Russian as their first language.
  2. Russia has legitimate concerns based on the actions of the nationalist Ukrainian parliament and the mobs in the streets.
  3. Russia will accept friendly countries on its border or “satrapies” as they’re being called and will tolerate neutral countries that convince the Russians they’re not a threat cf. the history of Finland but it will not accept hostile countries on its border, particularly among the old Soviet republics.
  4. Our material interests in Ukraine are not nearly as compelling.
36 comments… add one
  • Cstanley

    I agree that a lot of these recommendations are far too provocative, although I think we should be quietly preparing to act very swiftly if necessary.

    What surprised me, although it probably shouldn’t, is the extent of the anti US propaganda being disseminated in Russia. That leaked phone all, for instance, seems to have been quite important. I don’t think for a minute that Russian officials were surprised that the US and EU were getting involved at that level with the internal politics of Ukraine, but the smoking gun evidence they obtained in that phone call was a gift to them for propaganda purposes. I think the level of anti-Western paranoia has been underestimated, and I find that very worrying because it seems like we will get drawn in eventually.

    My point is that I don’t even think it is enough even to avoid outright provocation, because a lot of actions that we think of as benign are not being viewed that way by Russians. Examples include the “meddling” that helped destabilize the Ukrainian government, the relatively mild rebukes issued by Obama and Kerry, and the call for international observers in Crimea.

    If these words and actions are considered provocative, nothing short of complete capitulation would help cool things down, so I am starting to see that we should do and say as little as possible.

  • michael reynolds

    The recommendations from the right thus far fall into two schools: Do something we’re already doing, or do something stupid. Sailing the fleet into the Black Sea? That’s decidedly stupid.

    It isn’t the tough-guy act the asshats at the WSJ think it is. You’re putting major assets into a very vulnerable position. It’s not just that Russian (and Ukrainian) subs could wreak havoc in a fight, it’s that there are Russian land-based bombers and missiles ringing half that big lake as well. It’s both provocative and self-immolatory, with a whole lot of potential for someone to accidentally start a war.

    But let’s be honest here, the only concern of the GOP is to use this to attack Mr. Obama. They and their media servants should be ignored.

  • PD Shaw

    I don’t think 2 is established to the extent that invasion was a reasonable response. I agree about the Russian interests, but the invasion seems to about Putin’s hostility to a Ukrainian Parliament acting as an independent institution to the President, and a response to U.S. / E.U. meddling.

  • ...

    Why would it be a good idea to put our naval vessels in the Black Sea, where their room to maneuver is greatly reduced, and where they will be within easy reach of Russian land-based forces? Are they simply assuming that the Russians would never attack our forces whatever the provocation?

    Forget Andrew Jackson, is be thrilled to have a Kennan advising our leaders and people.

  • ...

    So when is the Washington Post right-wing? The only difference I see between them and the WSJ is that the WSJ kept talking and has stated outright all the bad ideas the WaPo only hints at.

    I also don’t think Obama really thought Cheney was a problem, given to whom they have turned for their own foreign policy with regards to Russia.

  • In my view the Washington Post isn’t right-wing. I see it as being the haruspex of the prevailing wisdom in Washington, DC which I further think should give us pause.

  • ...

    It’s the company paper in the company town.

  • Yeah, that’s a good way to put it.

  • TastyBits

    @michael reynolds

    The problem with the WSJ and the other hawks is that they lack the will to actually follow through the “tough-guy act”. This was my point in my previous comment. I do not like posers.

    Of course, they have no idea of what combat would entail in the Black Sea, but they are not prepared for combat. Hence, they lack the will. They are no different than President Obama.

    If the WSJ wants to send ships to the Black Sea, I have no problem. Send an aircraft carrier battle group with a Marine Corp MEF, and begin moving prepositioning supply ships towards the area. Start mobilising the necessary assets, and make sure the ICBM’s are working. All-in or all-out.

    Unless President Obama wants to go all-in, I am standing with him, but I will probably be able to find things to quibble about.

  • TastyBits

    I do not agree that Russia has any legitimate reasons to invade another country. They can gin up whatever cover story they want, and they rest of the world can go along as they want.

    Diplomacy, international justice, etc. are the niceties that are used to cover the reality of power.

    This is a land grab by Russia. Nothing more. Nothing less.

  • Cstanley

    Our material interests in Ukraine are not nearly as compelling.

    I keep hearing this, but it seems like an argument that is too late. The time to decide to stay out of Ukrainian affairs was before we got involved in Ukrainian affairs, or at least before we got caught.

  • ...

    Cstanley, that is correct, but having fucked up in Ukraine it might make sense to quit fucking up now before we wreck any other countries.

  • jan

    More on President Obama’s foreign policy thinking, indicating that if he believes it, it must be so, kind of analysis in play.

  • Cstanley

    Agreed, ellipsis, but I think the quitting requires a different set of actions than the refraining would.

  • TastyBits

    I am sure that a shiver went down Putin’s spine when President Bush looked into his eyes, and his heart went pitter patter. If only President Obama had made googly eyes with Putin, all would be well.

    This is like the second graders telling the first graders they are doing it wrong.

    I loved the idea of revoking all Miami privileges for Russians. The same people that withstood the Siege of Leningrad are going to be beaten by losing of a little sunshine. A US Senator was stupid enough to propose this as a solution.

  • ...

    Tasty Bits, that’s actually pretty good for a Senator. At least one other Senator wants to start WW III, so the no-Miami thing is a comparative BIG WIN. You’ve got to grade on a curve with these people.

  • PD Shaw

    @Elipses, I think 4 is true, in both that it is a comparative statement (Russia’s interests are more significant, not that ours are nonexistent), and that Russia’s interests are more “material” than ours. I think U.S. interests here are diffused in that at least some measure of American credibility is on the line, nonproliferation objectives are taking a big hit, and it becomes more difficult to pursue foreign policy in unrelated areas, including joint policy with Russia.

  • PD Shaw

    Oops, I meant @Cstanley.

  • Cstanley

    Yes, that all makes sense PD. What I’m focused on though is whether it is now possible for us to claim that we won’t get involved, when it is known that we already have been involved. In other words, the advantages that attach to neutrality are not available to us. That is not to say we should dig deeper, but just recognize that there is less upside than we would like from taking the “stay out of it” approach.

    This is kind of a pet peeve of mine, because generally people who advocate that approach seem to place much more confidence in the upside than I think is possible. Even if the US were to confine ourselves to a narrow sphere of interest, the rest of the world will still assume we’re involved in everyone else’s affairs for a long, long time. We’re guilty until proven innocent, in this regard, and heck, most of the time we really are guilty.

    Personally I think a third way might be possible, by remaining engaged and helping broker solutions while standing up for our values, but I don’t see the will or ability among our leaders and diplomats.

  • PD Shaw

    @Cstanley, in the sense that I think the U.S. doesn’t have much in the way of “material interests” in Ukraine, we are in a better position than most to make the case of a just resolution. That position would be even stronger if we admit to making mistakes, as I think this Administration has in contributing to this zero-sum Europe versus Russia mindset.

  • ...

    Cstanley, it’s not that I think there’s an upside to the “mind our own business” approach. It’s that I think it’s the least awful choice we’ve got.

  • ...

    On a phone, so I won’t type much, but I think PD’s suggestions mostly match what I think we should do. I’d have a couple other suggestions which I may type out when I’ve got access to a keyboard.

  • Cstanley

    I get that the criticism doesn’t apply to you, ellipsis. But there seem to be an awful lot of people who think that if we butted out everywhere, things would magically sort themselves out and that all animus directed toward America would turn to trust.

    That is as stupid as the people on the right who think that everyone would behave if we scare them into submission by puffing our chests and sending warships.

  • steve

    “in Ukraine, we are in a better position than most to make the case of a just resolution.”

    Sure, we can suggest to Russia that they model their behavior on ours (Libya, Iraq, Panama, Grenada, Pakistan). Maybe they would like to borrow our enhanced interrogation teams? Even if we were to admit soem of these past adventures were mistakes, I cant see Russia wanting our advice on how to handle the divisions in the Ukraine. They might listen to a significant trade partner, but even that is iffy.


  • ...

    But there seem to be an awful lot of people who think that if we butted out everywhere, things would magically sort themselves out and that all animus directed toward America would turn to trust.

    Well, I certainly don’t advocate pulling back entirely, although I am becoming more inclined to “isolationism”. But that isn’t because I think people will like us better, or because I think the world will necessarily do better without our muscles being flexed everywhere. I think the time has come for us to tend to our own nation more, and cutting back military expenditures and foreign engagements would help the balance sheets.

    But concerning Ukraine, PD’s diplomatic suggestions the other day would be a good start – and damned near a good end:

    I would send Biden to Ukraine [couldn’t we send him directly to Crimea? – Ellipses], try to get other countries to back out of the G8 meeting, look into getting Russia kicked out of the WTO, but not actually do it . . ..

    Some other stuff in that general vein would be good, though trying to impose sanctions against members of the Russia government seems a bit too antagonistic to me.

    Additionally, we could quietly let the Czechs and Poles know that we will expand the cancelled ABM installations into their nations (if they still want them, of course) and announce that when things settle down a bit. Perhaps hold some joint military actions with those nations, as well, to demonstrate to our allies that we will defend THEM even if we won’t (can’t) defend Ukraine. Such exercises should be announced somewhat ahead of time, and preferably when things cool off a touch. No reason to do snap exercises when everyone is feeling so twitchy. But there may be reason to demonstrate, both to the Russians and our allies, exactly where the lines are that should not be crossed.

    Honestly I have forgotten the treaty status of the Baltic republics (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia), but I would prefer making them off-limits as well, though that is sentimental on my part and probably not realistic.

    For longer term, I’d tell our European allies that they should be looking to re-arm*, and look for other energy resources. But those are mid- and long-term actions.

    * Forget Kerry’s nonsense about 19th Century actions in the 21st Century – these are the basics of the human condition. Of course, Europe re-arming isn’t the best thing ever – they’re the most fierce and most vicious warriors the planet has ever seen, and on the whole the most clever. But it is time to tend to our own, and if the Euros haven’t figured out to curtail their blood-thirstiness yet….

  • steve

    I would not advocate butting out everywhere. I would advocate butting in only when we have interests in doing so, and when there is a reasonable chance we understand the issues and a reasonable chance of achieving our desired outcome.


  • Andy

    The op-ed by the big papers, as usual, demonstrate their ignorance and clouded vision thanks to the DC bubble.

    Ships in black sea. Well, you’d think there would be some elementary research done before these op-eds. You’d think they would learn about the Montreaux Convention, or perhaps remember that two US ships just left the Black Sea a week ago. In a similar vein, you have Ollie North on Fox News talking about the need for the Polish ABM site to guard against the evil Russkies – meanwhile both the Bush and Obama admins went out of their way to assure Russia that the ABM site wasn’t intended to hinder Russsia’s strategic capabilities. Clearly, Ollie North knows better.

    It’s been a tough couple of days with all the instant and self-assured expertise on Ukraine, Russia, Putin. Worse, though, are the stupid arguments that Russia took Crimea because the US/President Obama lacked “resolve” or because he “caved” on Syria and Iran or because of BUSH/CHENEY. A ten-year old with access to google could demolish such arguments in short order, yet they continue to be repeated as truth by so-called “experts” and, naturally, those who view everything through a partisan lens.

    I weep for my country and the ignorance of our elites.

    Rant over, I would highly recommend reading the two most recent posts by this guy:

    Then read the post written on Feb. 8th – long before the instant experts arrived and before this crisis balooned- and tell me this guy doesn’t understand what’s going on.

    At this point two things seem pretty clear to me:

    1. Russia will keep the Crimea.
    2. The chickens, borne of Kosovo, Libya, NATO expansion and the entire Yeltsin era have come home to roost. The US and Western policy of claiming that the Cold War is over while simultaneously seeking to marginalize Russia at every turn is done. Russia will hold the line at Ukraine and, IMO, will risk a wider intervention if the West is stupid enough to force the issue.

    We are, in my judgment, at a dangerous point. The west and the US must understand that the more they try to draw Ukraine into the EU orbit, the greater the chance that Russia will not stop with the Crimea. I do not have much hope thanks to the R2P ideologues holding senior national security positions whose ideas about how the world does and should work, guarantee a confrontation with Russia.

  • michael reynolds

    Ellipses has it right.

    There’s not a single damned thing we can do to stop Putin taking the Crimea if he wants it. Or Ukraine as a whole. We are not going to war over Ukraine, and if we did we’d be in a hell of a fix trying to figure out how to go about it.

    There are a number of things we can do to marginally raise the cost to Putin and we’re doing those things. But that won’t stop him. Won’t even be a speed bump.

    There are a number of things we can do to exploit the situation afterward – all of Russia’s neighbors just felt their sphincters tighten. I doubt the neighboring ‘Stans will be giving us any grief over US airbases in the area. And even the EU nations have got to be thinking about at least some pitiful re-armament. Sure as hell Poland is.

    Even China cannot be thrilled, though it may take a while before they realize a frisky bear on a disputed border is not a good thing.

    The problem is that Russia wants to be isolated and besieged. Not as a matter of thoughtful policy but as an emotional need. Just like we need to feel righteous and exceptional, they need to feel excluded and despised. They are the sullen, self-pitying drunks of history, forever casting threatening looks from their barstool and dismissing efforts to get them to behave. Chess, poetry and suffering are what the Russians do well, and if they don’t have a good reason to suffer they’ll make one up.

    Long term this could be, well, not good, but clarifying for us, depending on how the details break and how well we play our hand. Let’s face it, we’ve been lost and confused FP-wise since we won the Cold War. Now we have a way of reminding the Europeans and the Chinese and even the more rational Muslim countries that the hypocritical Church Lady and her killer drones are less dangerous than a nuke-packing thug. There’s a disease and we are the only antidote anyone’s got. Back to the future.

  • As I’ve suggested before, I think the clarification we need is to start distinguishing between our interests and Europe’s interests. Sometimes they’re compatible but not always and just because the EU wants something doesn’t mean it’s in our interest.

  • michael reynolds


    I don’t think the EU is capable of forming a coherent view of its interests. Certainly not if it means accepting risks. I don’t think they thought through their prick tease with Ukraine, because I don’t believe Germany and France have any real interest in bringing Ukraine into the fold. They’ve got enough bail-outs in their future, they can’t possibly want a much bigger Greece on their hands.

  • ...

    Russia most likely does not want a war with Ukraine. Ukraine is poor, but there are forty-five million of them. (Russia has about 145,000,000.) Assume half of them, at least, would be ill-disposed to Russian rule. That’s a different prospect than getting Crimea in relatively bloodless fashion.

  • Most Germans don’t recognize the nature of what they’ll need to do for Greece. They think that if the Greeks just put their shoulders to the wheel and economize more they can be prosperous and buy German goods.

    My guess is that they’ve extended this logic to Ukraine and see the country as a prospective market for German goods rather than as a candidate for a German bail-out.

  • ...

    So it appears we are in the disturbing position of most of us being in general agreement about the Ukrainian situation.

    This bodes ill, methinks….

  • PD Shaw

    @steve, the U.S. has greater standing to bring a resolution to the Ukraine Crisis than the EU or Russia. Its Ukraine policy has been idealistic, naive and inept, but not self-serving.

  • ...

    [The USA’s] Ukraine policy has been idealistic, naive and inept, but not self-serving.

    I’m not so sure about that last part. A significant chunk of our ruling class believes that keeping Russia week and hemmed-in IS in the USA’s best interest.

  • saulula

    Pliz americans and west europe,learn to respect russians and other races who do not share in yo worldview. Some pipo sound so damn they forget that events in ukraine were catalysed by the west’s desire to weaken russia economically,politically,militarily by including ukraine into the eu and nato while keeping russia out.Besides how many countries has america/nato gone to war with since 1990 compared to russia. Most importantly,any talk of sending military forces to russia borders will be SUICIDE for mankind

Leave a Comment