Monday, May 5, 2014


The most recent reports on developments in Eastern Europe all suggest that Russia is on the verge of invading Ukraine a second time this year, either to annex the eastern portion or to decapitate the post-Yanukovich government and install a satellite regime. Needless to say, the crisis has the attention of much of the world...but perhaps not that of Washington, D.C.

The Obama Administration doesn't know how to cope with the Ukrainian quarrel. Its innate dislike of the use of military force would have predisposed it against an outright intervention in any case, but this case is uniquely complex. Ukraine is not a NATO ally; therefore, the U.S. is not treaty-bound to Ukraine's defense. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine surrendered a prodigious nuclear arsenal on the strength of guarantees of its territorial integrity which the United States signed.

The Budapest Memorandum was never presented to the Senate for ratification, so it lacks the status of a treaty. More, there were several other signatories -- ironically, the Russian Federation was one of the first -- which clouds the issue of whether the memorandum's obligations lie upon the signer states individually or severally. Above all, there are serious questions about America's ability to intervene usefully in that region without the active assistance of our Western European NATO allies, not one of which has expressed even a mild interest in doing so.

We need not pause over whether military intervention would embroil the U.S. in a war with Russia. Of course it would; that would be the point. Such a war would be unlikely to go nuclear, as American nuclear weapons in Europe would inflict catastrophic damage on Russia, whereas Russia could not trust its decrepit strategic arsenal to do much to America at all. However, were there a serious prospect of such an intervention, the outcome would be in doubt for political and logistical reasons.

Among the considerations involved in any decision over American military aid to Ukraine looms one that, to my knowledge, no other commentator has yet addressed: What would it do to the future prospects of the NATO alliance? This, too, is a complex question, for though the U.S. is considered the "senior member" of NATO, it's not the only one -- not even the only one with expeditionary capability or nuclear weapons.

NATO has never been a "balanced" alliance. The U.S. is expected to defend the European signatories, but no one expects the European states to rush to the defense of the U.S.; Israel would be far more likely to do so. Part of what distinguished the First Gulf War from Operation Iraqi Freedom was the surprising willingness of the European states to contribute to the former, in contrast to their almost complete abstention from the latter. That first war was viewed as having implications for European security, especially its supply of oil; the more recent one was not. It was a demonstration of the European states' essential indifference to affairs that don't bear directly on their own interests.

Even so, the alliance's terms are explicit: all signatories are committed to responding to an attack on any one of their number as if it were an attack on all of them. NATO's internationally integrated military and command structure reflects that commitment.

For the U.S. to go to the defense of Ukraine, in the absence of a reciprocal commitment in the fashion of the North Atlantic Charter, would pose the other NATO states with a conundrum: What point is there to being a NATO member if the U.S. is equally willing to go to the defense of non-member states? Why accept the obligations of membership when the key benefit could be obtained without them?

That question could cause the effective dissolution of the alliance. Perhaps it would cohere in form for a while, but the sense that NATO has practical significance rather than being merely a historical arrangement superseded by events would be lost.

Thus, even with a Reagan or a Bush the Younger in the Oval Office, there would be at least some backpressure against the impulse to come to Ukraine's aid, over and above the usual military and budgetary considerations. Reagan was willing to intervene in Grenada out of regard for American students there, and out of fidelity to the Monroe Doctrine. Bush the Younger struck Afghanistan in reprisal for the September 11 atrocities, and Iraq out of the hope that the Middle East might respond constructively to the removal of one of its most brutal regimes. An intervention in Ukraine would not offer those incentives. It would have to be propelled by a sense of moral rather than legal obligation, without the prospect of gains from victory and against the disincentives posed by national and international politics.

With the Obamunists in power it's guaranteed not to happen, but even with a more hawkish administration, it would be against the odds -- and it's possible that watching from afar while readying our military for whatever might come next -- for example, a Russian move against the Baltic members of NATO -- really is the right thing to do.


Sergio said...

Nicely written, Fran, as usual.

However, I have a big problem with the United States embroiling itself in a Ukrainian war.

In the fallen world in which we live, where banking, defense, and energy cartels routinely destabilize entire regions for their own selfish purposes, I find it hard to get excited about yet another American military adventure.

That expeditionary capability you cite, American or otherwise, is cause for a host of the world's problems, where autocrats are empowered to bully for their backers half a world away.

YIH said...

Pat Buchanan (among others) has stated ''after the dissolution of the Warsaw pact and Soviet Union, NATO should have been retired'', I agree.
I'm also one of those who are convinced we most certainly stirred up the trouble in Ukraine then just like some sick 'firebug' we're calling the Fire Department to put out the fire we set.
The same question comes up as did with Syria: Is our problem? Is this our fight? For both, I say no.
Also this idea that the US military has unlimited manpower and resources to draw from is a really foolish one. If it were a car, it would likely have less than 1/2 a tank of gas left after such unwinable idiocies as Iraq and Afghanistan.
Japan's quite worried (and who can blame them?) so is South Korea, and we have real obligations to defend them if needed and both are afraid if they ''pick up the red phone'' they'll get a busy signal.
BTW if ''we're all Ukrainians now'' McCain/Palin want to fight an invading country why don't they try the Arizona/Mexico border?