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Ukraine, Unconventional Warfare, and Unbridled Russia

Although lying within the heart of Europe, Ukraine also got little US backing when it fell prey to Russia’s revanchist designs. Ukraine’s plight worsened after the Russian Federation’s abrupt annexation of its Crimean Peninsula with all the surprise of a black swan event. Russia’s recovery of this former, imperial land called to mind the Novorossiya (New Russia) of the czarist past. America’s focus momentarily shifted from the Syrian- Iraqi arena to Russia’s swallowing the Crimea in March 2014 and then Moscow’s subverting eastern Ukraine. Washington’s attention snapped back to the Middle East with ISIS’s lightning thrust deep into the bosom of Iraq and the capture of Mosul, the country’s second largest city.

The two crises were connected despite their different circumstances. Moscow’s takeover of Crimea impacted the Syrian conflict. The Kremlin’s land grab of the Black Sea peninsula deepened Russia’s rift with the West, almost guaranteeing its bolstering of President Assad’s belligerency against the West. Indeed, the bonds between the two anti-Western states strengthened in the face of what they perceived as a battle against America’s post-Cold War unilateralism, regime-change intrusions, and meddling in the affairs of other states. This bonding went beyond the foreign chancelleries to ordinary people, culture exchanges, and research institutes in the two nations.111 For Damascus, Russian succor was only surpassed by the regime-saving resources from Iran, which included financing, military instruction, arms, and Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon.

Washington’s reaction to Russian revanchist seizures first in Crimea and then Ukraine fell short of the magnitude of the threat posed to the post-Cold War order and stable boundaries within Eastern Europe. True to form, the United States reacted in a measured manner. Guided by the United States, the West Europeans pursued conferences, dialogue, and limited sanctions in response. Because of the Russian Federation’s atomic arsenal, the West shrank from pressuring Moscow too hard. Negotiating parties on each side of the Ukrainian divide signed a string of accords and statements to bring about a cease-fire in the strife-ridden borderlands. But all the agreements ended with the resumption of gunfire and the death of over 10,000 people by the start of 2016. Instigated and aided by the Russian military, the Ukrainian separatists resumed their attacks on the central government’s hapless army. Labeled “hybrid warfare,” the Kremlin’s slow-motion aggression relied on local insurgents who denied the presence of their powerful Russian benefactor. The Federation likewise denied involvement in Ukrainian fighting. The United States and its NATO partners offered meager military assistance. Despite bipartisan pleas from Congress to arm the Ukrainians with defensive weapons, the Obama administration dragged its feet, putting its faith in every targeted sanctions and verbal condemnations against Russian encroachments.

Against the Russian-orchestrated hybrid war, the United States first consulted with its NATO allies. Germany, Western Europe’s lynchpin, proved to be preternaturally circumspect about defending Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Angela Merkel stated that the eventual collapse of the Berlin Wall justified a stoic but pacifist stance toward Russia’s thinly veiled invasion into eastern Ukraine. In the longer run of history, this Russian aggression, the German chancellor argued, would not prevail any more than had Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe. Thus, no military counteroffense should be mounted by the West. Still, the West took up its favorite weapon against Russia’s hostile intervention; it adopted economic sanctions against Putin officials and cronies, prohibiting them from traveling and investing in the West. It also booted Russia from membership in the Group of eight major economic powers. These measures failed to convince Moscow to withhold aid to the Ukrainian separatists, although the Russian economy shrank.

Washington’s direct assistance to Ukraine also faltered. Over the next several months, the United States offered $23 million in non-lethal assistance, including body armor, communications equipment, night-vision goggles, and food. Wags commented that America’s lame answer to military aggression was MREs—Meals Ready to Eat—the unpalatable, prepared food for US troops in the field. The Pentagon withheld more powerful weapons, including much-desired anti-tank missiles.112 Hoping to isolate Russia, Washington confronted Putin’s further aggressiveness in eastern Ukraine in mid-2014 with additional sanctions on its own, since the West Europeans balked at hurting their lucrative economic ties with Moscow. The fresh economic punishments expanded the targets from wealthy oligarchs within Putin’s ruling circle to the Federation’s financial, defense, and energy giants. The Obama administration denied specific corporations, such as Rosneft (the largest oil producer), access to American capital markets, which impacted their ability to gain loans for business development.

France, Germany, and Russia made it clear that United States was not welcome at their negotiating table with Ukraine. They formed the Normandy format after a meeting on June 6, 2014, in France to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Operation Overlord on Normandy’s beaches. The negotiators reached a peace agreement in February 2015 in Minsk, Belarus, that curbed the worst violence between Kiev’s army and the Russian-aided separatist operating in southeastern Ukraine. This Minsk II accord passed a test in late June 2015 when the 28-member EU re-approved the economic sanctions, in spite of doubts about Moscow’s future intentions.113

The different approaches adopted by the United States and Europe led to initial disharmony within the transatlantic alliance.114 In time, the EC, which defines the EU’s political directions, demanded that the European Investment Bank curtail financing for Federation projects. Gradually, Europe suspended other Russian investments. The Euro-American confluence on a common sanction regime eased their former taut relations regarding policy toward Russian aggrandizement.

The Russian Federation did not accept the West’s economic warfare lying down. Moscow violated the 1987 landmark arms control accord between the two countries. By testing intermediate-range (from 300 to 3400 miles), ground-launched missiles, Moscow breached the treaty. The Russians broke the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) by test-firing cruise missiles. The State Department raised further concerns about the Federation’s violations of the Open Skies Treaty which allowed for observation flights by unarmed aircraft. It also called Moscow to account for its transgressing the Vienna Document which required notification to European governments when Russian forces massed in Central Europe, as they did along the Ukrainian border starting in 2014. The Kremlin countered that the US Aegis missile defense system being installed in Eastern Europe constituted a danger. Aimed at Iran’s growing missile threat, Washington replied that the Aegis possessed only defensive, not offensive, capabilities; therefore it was permitted by the INF Treaty.115

Worries about Moscow’s possible intervention into Poland and the Baltic States also brought together Americans and Europeans to address Russia’s aggressive intentions. At the NATO summit in Wales in early September 2014, President Obama vowed to defend the Baltic nations’ independence. The American leader urged his transatlantic partners to bolster Ukraine’s security by leveling additional economic sanctions against Russia and by upping their defense spending to the agreed-upon 2 percent of their GDP.116 Like its fellow NATO members, the United States stopped well short of granting Ukraine’s pleas for armaments, especially short-range missiles and anti-tank weapons. Once again, European nations pledged to up their defense spending at the summer 2016 NATO summit, while the United States pledged a battalion for defense.

Continued Russian backing of the Ukrainian separatists’ attacks prompted modest US countermeasures after months of dithering. The Pentagon dispatched 300 US Army paratroopers to train Ukrainian

National Guardsmen in April 2015. The six-month Fearless Guardian exercise was strictly restricted to training alone. At about the same time, the Defense Department also airlifted American paratroopers to the Republic of Georgia for a five-day, joint military exercise to train Georgian soldiers to participate in the NATO Response Force. Both US deployments elicited Moscow’s condemnation for treading in its sphere. In the next year, the Pentagon planned to station a battalion in Poland to reassure a jittery Warsaw of US backing.

In the Middle East, President Obama’s twin decision to—recommit troops and aircraft to Iraq and retain small numbers of US troops in Afghanistan—undercut his promise to end the wars he inherited but only slowed America’s insular drift. Neither detour amounted to a full-fledged re-commitment of real US military power to address adequately terrorist scourge. In this minimalist stake, the president’s actions resembled the boldly announced Asian pivot, a policy declaration with minimum political or military heft. Taken together with anemic countermeasures in Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, and Syria, it signaled another step backward toward disengagement. Not strong-pointing the US presence in terrorist- embattled nations just invited and enabled jihadi attacks in the West.

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