The United States and NATO must come up with a tough policy if they hope to deflect Russian President Vladimir Putin from taking over the eastern part of Ukraine.
Ethnicity is a major problem in Ukraine. Most residents consider themselves either Ukrain-ians or Russians. While most residents speak Ukrainian or at least understand it, the language a person uses generally reflects his national identity.
The major question Ukraine faces is which direction the country will go. Most Ukrainians prefer going to the West — the U.S. or Europe. No so for Ukraine’s Russians. The issue is particularly contentious in eastern Ukraine, where the Russian minority lives and where in recent days blood has been spilled and even civilians have confronted Ukrainian military units.
Our biggest threat comes from Putin. Some believe he has Russia’s army ready to invade on his signal. U.S. Air Force Gen. Phillip Breedlove, NATO’s top commander in Europe, has estimated that Russia has 40,000 troops ready to attack Ukraine. “I would characterize it as a combined arms army,” he said. “In other words, this is an army that has all the provisioning and enablers it needs to accomplish a military invasion.” In effect, this means Moscow has aircraft, artillery, field hospitals, communication and jamming gear ready for an attack.
The Ukrainians have moved some forces to the east, but it appears they are primarily in response to the pro-Russian groups that have seizing government buildings while pleading for the Russians to invade. The Ukrainian army would be no match for the Russian military, despite the latter’s problems.
If Putin has no intention of invading Ukraine, why all of the troops on its border? They help keep the pressure on Kiev. Ukraine’s leaders don’t know Moscow’s intentions, and so have to plan for a possible invasion.
Putin is not about to get pushed into a corner. Recently, for example, he shifted attention from his massed troops and focused his threats on cutting cut gas supplies. Most Russian pipelines run through Ukraine. Thus, Europe has to consider the possibility that Putin would cut off the gas that goes through Ukraine (and is often stolen by Ukraine) to Europe. Since most of Europe relies on Russian gas, cutoffs could mean economic disaster.
Not satisfied with economic and military actions, Putin has also launched a propaganda attack that makes his goal clear: not a Russian Ukraine, but a Ukraine he can control. Ukraine owes Moscow more than $2.2 billion for gas imports, and Moscow has just raised the price Ukraine must pay for gas to $485 per 1,000 cubic meters — a price Ukraine can not pay. To get help from Russia, Ukraine must recognize the Crimea’s independence, change its constitution, and regulate the crisis in its eastern regions including the rights of its Russian speakers.
Moscow’s military “ex-ercise” hasn’t just worried Ukraine, it has scared other countries in East-ern Europe that not so long ago were under Moscow’s control. Most have expressed their fear that the Russian Army will move into their countries. This has been particularly true of the Baltic states and Poland.
This raises the question of what the West would do if Russia invades eastern Ukraine. So far, the West’s response has been minimal — refusing visas to a limited number of senior Russian officials and some actions against Russian-controlled banks.
NATO has increased its air patrols over the Baltic Sea and is running daily AWACS flights over Poland. One suggestion is that NATO should station forces in the countries that feel most threatened. There is considerable logic in this. Unlike Ukraine, the others are members of NATO, and Article 5 of the NATO charter states that an attack on one member is an attack on all members.
Also, while the Russian military may roll over the Ukrain-ians, that is unlikely to be the case with a NATO force. NATO is underfinanced, but the problems with the Russian military (with exception of several elite formations) are legion.
The final and probably most important question is what, if anything President Obama would do. There has been a lot of tough talk coming out of Europe and Washington, but so far, he has established a record of talking tough but doing little.