It is a painful irony that the right seems to have dropped the “What would Reagan do?” meme at the very moment when it is most apt. As Vladimir Putin tries to carve off the Crimea from Ukraine, the argument about how to react has devolved into two sides talking past each other on the dangers of doing nothing or going to war. Yet Reagan knew – and used – a plethora of options between those extremes in his winning battle with the Soviet Union. Those options are still in front of us.
In short, we can help Ukraine liberate itself from Putinist aggression. Here are the options (none of which are mutually exclusive, and many of which should, in my view, be taken).
Freeze Russian assets and block Russian tourists here: As Ben Judah notes in Politico, Russia’s kleptocrtatic elite has been squirreling money abroad for years, and we’ve let them do it. That in itself is not a bad thing for us; in fact, it grants us some decent leverage in moments like this. Russia’s central bank has already jacked up interest rates to protect the ruble’s value – and the market ran right over it (Bloomberg). If Putin’s rich cronies can’t get to their money, he has a problem.
Provide military aid to Ukraine: The statements out of Kyiv make it fairly clear that Ukraine sees the Crimea carve-off as an act of war, but there seems to be little the Ukrainian military can do (Telegraph, see note at 11:59); Putin knows this. Both sides might change their calculations if American arms started showing up in Ukrainian military installations. Even now, Russian troops haven’t entered Ukrainian military bases in Crimea – a sign that Putin isn’t looking for a fight. Make it clear he’ll get one if he stays – not from us per se, but from the locals using our arms – and he might rethink his position.
Provide support to the Crimean resistance: Putin will definitely rethink his position if his troops have to act like occupiers. While the majority of Crimeans may be Russian-speaking, that doesn’t mean support for Putin’s invasion is unanimous. Ethnic Ukrainians and Tartars in Crimea are likely furious at what has happened. Helping their efforts to resist occupation is right out of Reagan’s playbook. He used it to liberate Nicaragua (arming rebels), Afghanistan (ditto), and Poland (whose resistance preferred weapons of information – fax machines, printers, etc.), without any American military presence. Putin and his troops are acting as if they’re doing Crimea a favor. If Crimeans themselves rise up against him, this entire operation turns into a major Moscow headache.
If you want to put American troops in the region, put them in Kyiv or Lviv: An American military force in Ukraine (but not Crimea) will make clear that we stand with her against Putin, without setting off any triggers. I should note that this action is actually the weakest of the bunch, and I wouldn’t recommend it by itself. Still, a gesture of goodwill could be helpful.
Amidst all the talk of “resurgent Russia” and Putin’s attempt to recreate a Russian empire, we should keep one thing in mind: Russians are terrible imperialists. Their first 20th century war to protect their empire from the Kaiser led to complete national collapse and a Communist revolution. The Communist version of the empire was so brutal and incompetent that the occupied peoples actually cheered the Nazis whenever they showed up. Stalin’s attempt to extend the empire into Eastern Europe lasted less than fifty years. Even now, the “statelets” of Abkhazia (Georgia) and Transnistria (Moldova) are seeing elections in which the voters are going off-script and rejecting the pro-Putin candidates.
There is no reason to doubt Putin will wear out his welcome in Crimea, too. In the meantime, we need to make it clear to him, Crimeans, other Ukrainians, and everyone else that we can and will help those resisting this irridentist aggression.
Cross-posted to Virginia Virtucon