Unmarked troops standing in Balaklava, in Sevastopol, Ukraine

Unmarked troops standing in Balaklava, in Sevastopol, Ukraine Andrew Lubimov/AP

How Obama Can Hold Back Russia and Reassure Europe

Crimea may be lost, but President Obama should fly to Brussels and reassure Europe that NATO will keep Putin out of Eastern Ukraine. By Barry Pavel

It is increasingly clear that Ukraine will lose Crimea to Russia. What might come next could draw the United States and NATO into a new, sustained long-term contest: If Russia decides to foment instability in eastern Ukraine, then the resulting instability in the heart of Europe could be very dangerous and costly indeed.

Putin’s political and military forces, including, almost certainly, special forces and intelligence operatives, are all over Crimea. We have been lucky that Ukrainian forces there have been so restrained. If one of the many incidents that have been occurring across several Crimean military bases goes badly, then what is currently a relatively nonviolent crisis could explode into, first, civil war, and then potentially a broader regional conflict involving nuclear powers. The Obama administration has been wielding diplomatic, military and economic tools seeking to convince Putin to withdraw his forces back to their existing bases in Crimea and Russia. This is the right goal to pursue in public.

But the real red-line is eastern Ukraine. If Russian provocateurs foment violence in key eastern Ukrainian cities, Putin then could draw on his pretext of protecting ethnic Russians to surge significant, additional forces into the region. Unlike in Crimea, the Ukrainian military likely would resist, triggering the beginning of a sustained civil war and potentially wider instability in the heart of Europe. The resulting military operations and refugee flows westward would greatly heighten insecurity among Washington’s eastern European NATO allies, particularly Poland, the Baltic states, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, almost all of whom joined NATO for protection against a resurgent Russian threat. This is why Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey stated recently that he has raised this concern about eastern Ukraine with his Russian counterpart in their daily phone calls.

So what should the United States do to strengthen this deterrent message and underwrite its credibility? Specifically, U.S. deterrent strategy should have three parts.

First, the United States and its European allies should continue to dissuade Putin from sending forces into eastern Ukraine by threatening a combination of financial, trade, economic, diplomatic and military measures that would impose significant costs on Putin and the corrupt cronies around him. The days when Russia was completely isolated from the global economy are long gone. Russia today is much more intertwined with the world, with the global economy, and with Europe particularly, than the Soviet Union of yesterday. Indeed, many of the threatened economic measures could hurt Russia, but they are double-edged swords, especially for Europe. Any attempted cutoff of Russian investments also would hurt a European economy that is still recovering from the global financial crisis. Yet, we now have increasingly effective and targeted financial and economic tools that could help isolate Russian oligarchs while minimizing negative impacts on the European and American economies.

The United States should not overplay threatened military measures publicly, which could deepen the crisis and harden Putin’s resolve. U.S. military threats play very well with Putin’s traditional base. But privately, U.S. officials should make crystal-clear that moving into eastern Ukraine would mean a full range of U.S. military deployments and security enhancements in the region that would serve to greatly constrain a Russian military that still remains very far from the height of its Cold War power.

Secondly, President Obama should go to NATO headquarters in Brussels soon for an extraordinary meeting of the alliance to consult on the Ukraine crisis and demonstrate renewed alliance solidarity. The U.S. should work vigorously to reassure nervous eastern European NATO members that the U.S. treaty commitment to come to their defense remains sacrosanct, as Dempsey stated last week. The modest military measures announced so far, including air force deployments to Poland and Lithuania and a naval ship transiting the Bosphorus, were a good, public down payment. But much more could be done, if needed, diplomatically and militarily, to shore up NATO’s eastern defenses and more broadly reinforce the transatlantic link, including deploying additional U.S. missile defenses and ground forces.

Finally, the U.S. should use this crisis as an opportunity to take measures that reduce Russian leverage in future crises. Take energy. This would be an ideal time for the Obama administration to remove any legal or regulatory hurdles and incentivize robust exports of U.S. liquefied natural gas to Europe. Russia may have no single greater source of leverage over our European allies than its supply of gas. The Czech Republic, Bulgaria, the Baltic states, Slovakia and Poland rely on Russia for a significant proportion of those supplies. With looming self-sufficiency in energy, the U.S. can now begin to use this new tool to help reassure our allies and reduce Putin’s ability to threaten them.

As desirable as it would be to convince Russia to withdraw its forces from Crimea, the United States has little leverage for doing so. However, the U.S. can effectively deter the much more threatening, potential Russian action that would greatly affect U.S. security interests: a Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine.

Barry Pavel is vice president and director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council. From 2008-2010 he was special assistant to the president and senior director for defense policy and strategy on the National Security Council staff. Prior, Pavel was chief of staff and principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations/low-intensity conflict and interdependent capabilities.