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Obama still doesn’t have a strategy for Russia

By Dale R. Herspring

Our relations with Russia are both complicated and dangerous. If we are too aggressive with Russia over the conflict in Ukraine, we could end up with a war. Yet if we continue our policy of pin pricks, we risk further convincing Russian President Vladimir Putin, that, to take liberties with Theodore Roose-velt’s famous comment, we “talk loudly and carry a small stick.” 

Credibility matters. Does the other side believe you are willing to carry out your threats? In this case, hardly. Part of this perception is a result of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy.  In fact it is not clear that he has a foreign policy. I feel sorry for Secretary of State John Kerry. I know how frustrating it can be to try to do your job when your instructions are vague at best. Furthermore, there is the problem former Defense Secret-ary Robert Gates mentions in his memoirs, “Duty,” about this White House staff and its micro-management of foreign and defense policy.

Another element is our so-called allies. Putin does not fear NATO despite Moscow’s propaganda against it. NATO could no more fight a serious conflict than could Russia. When NATO got involved in Libya’s civil war, the United States provided missiles to our allies because their stockpiles were so low. We also were the primary source of logistics and intelligence. Most NATO members do not allocate the 3 percent of gross domestic product they are pledged to provide; some allocate less than 2 percent.  

Another problem with our allies involves their source of energy. About 10 years ago they opted for cheap natural gas from Russia. There were voices,  especially in this country, that warned against making their economies dependent on Rus-sia. A number of observers pointed out that just as Russia could provide cheap oil, it could also increase prices or even cut off the supply.   

Serious sanctions on Russia could have disastrous impacts on our allies’ economies. A German magazine reports that a confidential European Com-mission study forecast that German GDP would expand by 1.6 percent in 2014 and 2.0 percent in 2015.  The report said sanctions on Russia would reduce these percentages, mainly by making energy more costly.

If we levy sanctions extreme enough to hit Russia’s economy hard, Moscow could feel it has no choice but to take military action against the West. That is not in anybody’s interest.

No one in his right mind believes a military solution makes sense. Our forces are being diminished by the funding cuts the Obama administration is making.  Second, Ukraine is a far away — in Russia’s back yard, not ours. Furthermore, while many questions remain about Putin’s confusing policy toward the eastern part of Ukraine, there are indications that he is not as much in charge as some might think.

Many Russians argue that the pro-Russian citizens in the eastern part of Ukraine ignore much of what Putin says and act independently. The point is not that Russia does not help pro-Russian forces in Ukraine, but that those forces sometimes refuse to follow Putin’s advice despite Russia’s support. The “monster” Russia helped create may force Moscow into a corner. Concern over this, it is claimed, is why Putin asked them to call off the May 11 referendums. It is hard to predict how civil wars, which this dispute could become, end.

What can the United States do? We should be able to provide Ukraine with more essential aid than MREs and chest protectors. There signs we are doing so, but all of our aid comes under the heading “non-lethal.”

One thing a lot of politicians seem to forget when they talk about the Russian Army is that with a few exceptions, it is ineffective. Its equipment is outdated, its forces demoralized and its leadership unsure of which direction to go.  Putin is investing 20 trillion rubles to modernize his military and has set 2020 as the year Russia catches up with the United States. I suspect this is overly optimistic because our country and our military will also be moving forward

If Washington wants to frighten Putin, it should reverse cuts in the armed forces and announce that we are going to take our military seriously.  Nothing would upset Putin more than to see that his actions are hitting him where it hurts — that the U.S. military is going to remain the best in the world.

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