The Russian military seizure of Crimea marks the end of a stable post-Cold War territorial status quo east of Poland and the return of Eastern Europe to U.S. global strategy. For the second time in six years, Russia has used military force to alter the boundaries of neighboring states without an effective response from the West. Unless the United States and its allies act decisively, the move threatens to harden into a Russian-Crimean Anschluss that would end Ukraine’s existence as a unified buffer state and create a reactivated strategic frontier between NATO and Russia, with dangerous implications for Europe and the wider world.
In military terms, the possession of Crimea is not of significant value to Russia; the Black Sea Fleet already enjoys unhindered access to the port facilities of Sebastopol and control of the peninsula does not enhance Russian power projection capabilities in the region. But geostrategically, the value of Russia’s Crimean gambit is potentially immense. The precedent of an unprovoked and unanswered land grab in the post-Soviet space would alter the balance of power—and balance of perceptions—among both NATO and non-NATO states in the Baltic-to-Black Sea corridor for decades to come. Should Russia succeed in absorbing territory from a sovereign neighbor, it would strengthen two demonstration effects established during the 2008 Georgia War: That Russia can engineer territorial faits accomplis at little cost to itself, and that the United States lacks the ability—diplomatic, economic or military—to deter or respond effectively to Russian power plays in the region.
The invasions in Crimea and Georgia represent a pattern of Russian strategic behavior in which a rapid, limited military thrust is followed by a cessation of hostilities to await mediation and consolidation of gains in the post-conflict settlement. This “jab and pause” strategy has been used by predatory states for centuries to achieve low-cost expansion. It is particularly useful for a power like Russia in avoiding unwinnable pitched confrontations while exploiting inevitable Western divisions in the complicated clean-up, as was the case in Georgia. It works especially well with Western interlocutors who are willing to pay a high price for Russian cooperation to avoid jeopardizing delicate deals elsewhere.
Allowing a pattern of rebate revisionism to take root in Eastern Europe would have profoundly negative consequences. An undeterred land grab would radiate insecurity throughout the Eastern members of NATO – especially the Baltic States, which possess large Russian minorities. It would especially affect Poland, which would face radically enhanced vulnerability as the greatest recipient of strategic instability emanating from Ukraine. It would offer a dangerous precedent for other revisionist-minded powers that covet the return of a lost territory. What of the Chinese minority in Thailand or Vietnam? Or the Iranian Shia minority in Saudi Arabia? If China wants Taiwan or Iran wants the Hormuz Islands, can they simply take them? Crimea sends the message that they can—that the rules are flexible for anyone willing to use military force.
Conventional wisdom holds that the United States has few options for responding to the crisis. While Washington lacks the geographic proximity to steer outcomes on the ground, it nevertheless possesses a range of tools for altering the incentives framing Russian decision-making. The key is to develop a strategy that imposes costs to deter further escalation while creating a counter-demonstration effect to show that this or similar acts in the future will significantly injure Russia’s economic and political position in the world.
To start with the obvious, the United States should suspend bilateral trade and other discussions with Moscow, cancel President Obama’s trip to Sochi for the G8 summit and work with European allies to implement targeted sanctions against senior Russian leaders. This should include highly personalized visa and asset freezes that affect the ability of political and military leaders to draw funds from or travel to the West for shopping and vacations (let them winter in Sochi or Dubai rather than Miami or Mallorca). In light of the rapidly worsening military picture, Washington should reposition U.S. fleet assets to the Eastern Mediterranean and open discussions with Turkey for the insertion of hospital ships and accompanying air assets into the Black Sea.
If a conflict breaks out, the United States can aid Ukraine. In the 2008 Russia-Georgia War, U.S. rhetorical and logistical support for Georgian military units returning to Tbilisi played an important role in de-escalating the conflict. While care should be taken not to send signals that would embolden aggressive acts by Kyiv, Washington should be prepared to organize collective allied efforts to provide military and medical supplies in the event of armed hostilities. It can help alleviate Russian energy supply interruptions by engaging with EU leaders and in particular NATO ally Slovakia to ensure reverse flow of gas into Ukraine if a cutoff occurs.
The United States should also retaliate in areas that will erode Russia’s global power position on a longer-term basis. The Administration should begin noisily planning ways to exclude Russia from key elements of the U.S.-led international economic system, including relocating the 2014 G8 Summit away from Sochi and restricting the participation of Russian actors in the U.S. banking system. But U.S. leverage is greater if Europe and particularly Germany give more than lip service to our efforts. Poland could be a significant help in convincing Germany to take a bolder stance than it may be inclined to take.
More immediately, Washington should conduct a symbolic but highly visible transfer of select U.S. air and air defense assets to Poland, the NATO ally with greatest exposure to fallout from the Ukrainian crisis, and announce its intention to move ground units there if the crisis intensifies. U.S. officials should use this week’s NATO meetings to reopen the provisions of the 1997 NATO Founding Act restricting the permanent placement of allied military assets on the territory of Central and Eastern European member states. A visible bolstering of the American military presence—especially in the Baltic States, given their parallels to Ukraine and Georgia—would send a clear message of American determination to uphold the territorial integrity of the post-1989 settlement.
The key is that there must be costs for the seizure of Crimea, irrespective of how the crisis develops from here. If Russia’s goal was to once again grab territory from a weak neighbor without paying a price, it is imperative for the stability not only of Eastern Europe but the inherently-volatile 21st global geopolitical order that Russia and any revisionist onlookers be proven wrong. History is not kind to states that allow rebate revisionism. America and Europe must exact a toll.