Tuesday, March 4, 2014

US Soft Power in Ukraine is Missing Hard Power's Escalation Control

The most frustrating thing about watching events unfold in the Ukraine is the realization that the United States apparently learned nothing from the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. If you recall the invasion of Georgia in 2008 by Russia, you will also recall it took place right in the middle of an American election. It would appear that timing favored Russia, because lessons were apparently not learned, indeed there is scant evidence the issue was truly studied.

Today, in nearly every avenue of action, tactical options are being discussed on how to 'react' to Russia's occupation of Crimea. For the last 5+ years, time has been lost that could have been used developing a policy that included strategic options for how to deal with aggressive Russian military behavior. Many of those options are finally being explored (like working the region towards energy independence from Russia) but they are years away from being employed, and lack value in dealing with the current crisis.

In 2007 the United States Navy developed the Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower in which the strategic object of preventing war was elevated to a primary mission statement of the US Navy. There was some hope that the DoD would adopt this stance as part of it's lexicon of capabilities provided. In rhetoric, the DoD demonstrated some appreciation for the concept of preventing war, but there is scant evidence the strategic object has been developed into an actual capability. Planning and rhetoric aside, the United States right now needs to prevent a war in the Ukraine. Yes, Russia has invaded the Crimea, and is using military power - but this is not a war, yet. Should the shooting start inside the Ukraine, the distinction between the non-violent occupation by the Russian military and an all out shooting war will be made evident, so no need to parse definitions.

As of Tuesday March 4, 2014, success for President Obama's soft power diplomacy policy depends entirely on preventing a war inside the Ukraine. I have been observing two starting assumptions represented in the mainstream assumptions of many "experts." I guess I am naïve to reject the prevailing wisdom of experts, time will tell.

First, I do not underestimate Putin, and I believe too many important people in this process are underestimating Russia right now. I have seen a number of media and political folks who talk to the White House regularly speak as if they believe Putin is acting from a position of weakness, and that Putin has somehow lost control of the situation and is improvising. Please stop. The EU is who lost control of the situation, and everyone has been scrambling ever since as Russia has set the parameters for the conditions inside the Ukraine to date. This administration has a history of underestimating Putin right up to the point where they get kicked sideways and told what the end game is - which seem to always favor Russia and leaves the US in a poker game holding a pair of twos trying to save face. This Rice/Kerry/Hagel team has yet to win on the field of play in foreign policy has no business underestimating this or any opponent, and has every reason to continuously expect the unexpected. The US must shape conditions favorably when given any opportunity, and right now I do not see the United States taking this kind of full court press approach to suggest we are in it to win it.

Second, I believe we are overestimating our ability to shape the outcome. Today NATO met and started discussing the situation, and tomorrow the EU will meet and start discussing their options. The US really needs the assistance of both NATO and the EU to prevent a war and shape the outcome favorably to our interests, but I am unsure the US will ultimately get much assistance from either the EU or NATO. It didn't even take 24 hours for both Germany and Great Britain to fold on economic and trade sanctions as a form of diplomatic coercion, and with the constant reinforcement in rhetoric by Senior US officials that there are no military options, I think it is absolutely clear that the study of strategy is completely dead in the DoD today. The effectiveness of the President's preferred soft power approach to crisis resolution depends on a single condition - that war inside the Ukraine is prevented. I am unclear how the US or Europe can guarantee that war is prevented inside the Ukraine without deterring the further use of Russian military power, and even though the situation might not escalate into a war, diplomatic success depends on the guarantee that war is prevented.

The US needs to shape conditions towards a favorable diplomatic solution, and I am not convinced the US is doing this today.

I believe Russia's primary objective is to take Crimea without using violent military force. Russia believes they can play a long game, wait out the Ukrainian military forces still inside Crimea, and eject those forces from the region. I am not one of those who believes Russia will simply annex Crimea, rather Russia will establish an autonomous state like they did in Georgia with South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Just like in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russia is the only country that wins that arrangement. The US needs to be thinking right now how to handle this outcome - because this is the best case outcome right now and we know it. History shows US policy over time does nothing but punish the people inside those regions, not Russia, so the US clearly needs to start the hard work of developing a new policy that addresses the situation more realistically.

I believe President Obama and the United States could potentially soon be standing alone against Russia on the issue of the occupation of Crimea in the Ukraine. I am not convinced the US can apply sanctions unilaterally without serious blowback by Russia, but maybe we can? It seems to me the US needs to define exactly what our national interest is in the Ukraine before we apply sanctions, because there are ways that Russia can put pressure on other, well defined, national interests in a game of diplomatic warfare against one another. I have no idea if President Obama sees the Ukraine situation as a national interest to the US, because I am yet to hear him articulate his argument why the crisis in Ukraine unfolding is a national interest of the US.

If we assume the occupation of Crimea represents a threat to our national interests, and I do believe it is, the US must guarantee that we do everything possible to prevent escalation of hostilities. To do so, the US must deter Russia from taking any further territory with military force. I am of the opinion that if 1) Russia starts facing a violent confrontation in any form, including insurgency, or 2) if our diplomatic warfare activities actually hurt Russia, that Russia will seek to occupy more territory in the Ukraine with hard military power, and will not hesitate to create a refugee problem with hard power. Ukrainian authorities continue to observe, every day, that Russia is massing more troops on the Russian border side of the Kharkov, Luhansk and Donetsk regions. If things start to go unfavorably for Russia, as of today nothing exists that will stop Putin from drawing a line from Kharkov to Odessa and occupying all points East. I don't think Putin is interested in a prolonged occupation, but that territory would given Russia several key advantages in diplomatic negotiations - including not just the territories, but a forced relocation refugee problem that would make everything inside the Ukraine considerably more complicated for any nation attempting to support the Ukraine with economic packages.

Obama has several military options to prevent a war. First, NATO could establish a air defense zone over Ukraine. If NATO is conducting the anti-air defense of Ukraine, the Russian military is not going to find success advancing in the Ukraine while being bombed from the air by the Ukrainian Air Force while also fighting the Ukrainian Army on the ground. NATO support for the Ukraine towards Air Superiority over the Ukraine would add significant assurance to the situation on the ground inside the Ukraine that Russia would not further advance militarily. I do not understand why the US DoD hasn't already been out front with this military option, diplomacy depends on the prevention of further hostilities, and the US is often quick to discuss setting up no-fly zones over enemy states, but is somehow slow in providing the same level of support to people we call friends?

NATO should also start mobilizing MIW capabilities just outside the Black Sea in case they are needed, because if the port in Odessa gets blocked by Russia, logistics is going to get very difficult for the Ukraine quickly. The railroads in the region are not that great, and cannot support Ukraine if - for any reason - access to the port of Odessa becomes restricted. Bryan discussed the need for more US seapower, but in my analysis of the kind of seapower the US would use in a situation like this given the various treaty obligations and operational challenges, the US Navy doesn't really field the kind of naval capabilities most needed for this type of conflict prevention strategic objective with the exception of the Littoral Combat Ship. The capabilities at sea needed are those for operating in the littoral, functional for electronic warfare and ISR, and capable of MIW. A CVN in the Eastern Med could sink the entire Black Sea Fleet in a day if it came to that, but this is about sea control without hostilities - soft power at-sea capabilities, not hard power like aircraft carriers. I'm not convinced even the LCS is a good fit for this crisis, but a combat capable corvette certainly would be. Other NATO nations have that capability, so perhaps US Navy logistics is the best capability for the US Navy to bring to this type of war prevention engagement.

Finally, NATO should commit some special units for military training and Ukrainian Army readiness inside the Ukraine - and do it starting today. The presence needs not be large, but the need to prevent war demands reassurance to the Ukrainian military to reinforce professionalism and maintain preparations towards the prevention of escalation of conflict with Russia. Sending ground forces in gives the US and EU escalation control, and does not represent escalation of tensions in and of itself - in fact it stabilizes tensions. The cost of these type of engagement activities in prevention of war pales in comparison to the costs of a refugee crisis on the border of yet another NATO nation, and one look at the refugee crisis coming from Syria should be a reminder that preventing a war before it starts is an excellent investment by NATO compared to reacting to the conditions of war after the the shooting starts.

It is incredible to me that the DoD has offices like Air-Sea Battle and the Office of Strategic Landpower and yet the DoD seems incapable of offering what I see as obvious military options that help deter Russia from further conflict. My biggest concern is that these military options have been presented to the President, and the Obama Administration (Susan Rice?) rejected these options, because I believe rejecting such options would represent nothing short of faith based foreign policy absent the serious substance necessary to control conditions in the real world; a political decision that, in my opinion, would justify every criticism related to weakness and incompetence of the administration and the people in it made to date.

As of today there are no obvious efforts being made towards preventing escalation of the crisis in the Ukraine by Russia if they choose to do so, even though US diplomatic activities will - by intent and presumably by effect if effective - escalate the crisis by imposing costs on Russia. Hard power in the form of forward deployed military presence represents the deterrence capability necessary to empower the effectiveness of diplomatic solutions by the Obama administration, and has the capacity to contain crisis through the stabilization of conditions that work favorably for our diplomatic soft power.

If the US is unwilling to set conditions for US diplomacy to work, expect the conditions to be changed by Russia in a way that works unfavorably against our diplomatic activity.

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