The Ukrainian Crisis, Part I: Weighed in the Balance

      Comments Off on The Ukrainian Crisis, Part I: Weighed in the Balance

James D. Hardy, Jr., PhD and Leonard J. Hochberg, PhD

When the Russians moved into the Crimea, pundits and politicians, including Hillary Clinton, commented that the reasons given by Vladimir Putin for the invasion were the same as those used by Adolph Hitler at Munich in 1938.  Ethnic Russians (Germans) were being abused and threatened by the government of Ukraine (Czechoslovakia).  Putin (Hitler) was forced to protect the helpless Russians (Germans).  He (Putin and Hitler) could not just watch this happen.  The similarity of excuses must mean something.[1]

The excuse for moving, that co-nationals were under threat, was a mere detail, a shiny trifle that caught the eye.  The real issues involve the reasons why Hitler and Putin thought they had every good chance of succeeding in aggression.  Careful leaders (Hitler before 1939) and Putin now take steps that appear bold, when actually there was great drama but little danger.  Weakness, not strength, was really on display in 2014 and 1938.  Never mind Putin (or Hitler); it is President Obama (and was Prime Minister Chamberlain) who matter.

American weakness, in the Crimea and elsewhere, is curious and perhaps unprecedented.  The weakness is not military.  Unlike Britain in 1938, modern America is armed to the teeth, with a nuclear-tipped military force that can project overwhelming power anywhere in the world.  Drones patrol a world-wide battlefield and the current administration has been aggressive in using them.  U.S. military power is flexible and unmatched.  Economic power is similar.  America has the largest economy in the world and is also the most technologically innovative.  The United States can deliver serious economic sanctions, as with Cuba and Iran.  America is also socially stable, without the revolutionary turmoil found in Ukraine, Venezuela, Syria and most of the developing world.  The United States, unlike Britain, in 1938, is the strongest single polity in the world.

But the convergence of forces goes beyond military, social, and economic strength.  There is also moral resolve.  Napoleon, who knew something about conflict, noted that the moral was to the physical as three was to one.  Moral resolve and national will cannot be measured, as can dollars and drones, but they can be judged and sensed.  International judgment on the current administration’s moral resolve has not been favorable.  The false “red line” in Syria made an impression.  The six month deal with Iran over enriching nuclear fuel has seemed, both here and abroad, as favoring Iran.  The administration is proposing to give up control over internet domain names to an international commission, which will include our enemies.  All of these contribute to the sense of American moral weakness, but Ukraine is the crisis that defines them.  When Russian troops appeared in the Crimea on March 1, 2014, the American administration was caught by surprise.  Starting a step behind, the American administration made the two moves it uses when not on top of things.  The administration condemned the Russian takeover and then drew a red line which could not possible be enforced.  Consequently, the administration cannot possible persuade the Russians to leave the Crimea.  The administration has huffed and puffed, making itself look ridiculous.  The Crimean referendum went Putin’s way and the Russians are now preparing to enter the Donets Basin.  The American administration continues to dither, looking ever weaker.  In Tallinn, Warsaw, and Jerusalem, officials are nervous to the point of fear.  The Obama administration continues to dither.  It goes to the U.N.  It prates on about international law.  It “sanctions” a few Russian officials.  Laughter in Moscow, Beijing and Tehran grows louder; nervousness in Europe, Israel and Saudi Arabia grows more palpable.  The Russians and the Iranians have President Obama on the run.  He is weak and uncertain.  Everyone can see it.

To make things worse, President Obama has a strong response at his fingertips, a response that is entirely domestic and requires no diplomacy at all.  The strongest American response lies in the area of energy.  Everyone knows what could be done and is not being done.  Since Russia depends on hydrocarbon exports to survive and Europe depends on Russian natural gas, the obvious riposte is to increase American oil and gas production and export.  Approve the Keystone pipeline.  Open federal lands to fracking.  Approve the export of natural gas to Europe.  Approve new refineries.  Expand Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) port facilities.  Some of these things are being done but at a commercial rather than a strategic tempo.  It will take years, of course, for the American energy weapon to come fully on line, but the mere announcement of these steps, even if nothing else is done (not said, but done), would encourage the E.U., should give Russia pause, and might help overcome the appearance of American lethargy.  The stench of moral weakness can be dispelled, but only by actions of great pith and moment.

Ukraine also has a weapon that is entirely domestic and requires no diplomacy at all.  The Russian pipelines that send energy to the EU run predominantly through Ukraine.[2]  Almost 70% of Russian natural gas exports, which essentially heat the continent, go through Ukraine.  The power to transport is no less than the power to produce.  Ukraine can turn the spigot off or, worse, destroy the pipelines.  But they won’t, nor will they even mention it.  American weakness is sufficient to guarantee a Russian invasion should Putin even suspect that the Ukraine might act.  Lack of political will in great powers spreads like mold on a damp day, infecting those far as well as near.  Weapons that will not or cannot be used have little value, except to spread the sense of rot and loss.

We do not see such actions by the Obama administration.  We see only petulance – Obama will not recognize the results of the referendum.  We see flabby insult – America will not talk to Russia at the G8 meeting.  We see call for others to lead – Europe must take a stand and make the sacrifices.  We see faulty geopolitical analysis – Obama telling the world that the United States has no interest in “encircling Russia.”[3]  We see useless pep talks- Obama tells the Ukrainian premier that America will support them now that all is lost and nothing will be done.  Well, not quite nothing.  The Ukrainians recently asked for weapons and President Obama promised them MREs (Meals Ready to Eat).  We see appeals to the United Nations – which is the definition of useless dither.  We see sanctions against individuals – which are petty, pathetic and do not even rise to the level of appearing to do something.  We see only weakness.

Since the Obama administration has failed to use its most powerful weapon, both American allies and enemies can only assume that America will only do and say things that amount to nothing.  Why would anyone even pay serious attention to President Obama?  The message is clear, to friends and to foes.  Make other arrangements for collective security.  Continue with nuclear development.  True enough, Barack Obama will not be president forever, but while he is in office, America can be safely ignored and defied.  Moral weakness breeds only laughter and contempt.

In one important way, the democratic west was better off in 1938, in spite of being then militarily and economically weak.  There was someone then who was not weak and who pointed the way ahead.  In the week after Munich, Winston Churchill arose in the House of Commons to address the meaning of recent events.  He stated “… that we (Britain) have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat and that France has suffered even more than we have.”  But the diplomatic and military defeat, however great, was not confined to Munich.  

And do not suppose that this is the end.  This is only the beginning of the reckoning.  This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health … we arise again.[4]  

And here we are again.  After Crimea will come something else, the Russians in the Donets Basin, probably, the Iranian nuclear bomb, certainly, Taliban victory, Chinese control of the East and South China Seas, Taiwan, Estonia, Azerbaijan, an Islamist Turkey making terms with Russia.  The bitter cup is always full.  We have traveled the road of moral weakness before.  We know the end to which it leads.


[1] Of course, it meant something.  But what?  Since Woodrow Wilson’s attempt at the conclusion of World War I to reconstruct the international arena on the principle of national self-determination, strongmen have frequently exploited the discontent of co-nationals located across this or that international border.

[2] For maps of relevant pipelines, see “Ukraine Seeks to Improve Investment Climate,” Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI): September 3, 2013: and “A Map of Russian Gas Suppliers to Europe via Ukraine,” RIA Novosti, 2009:, and “Ukraine’s Gas Transmission System” to be found in Dave Schuler, “The Ukraine Crisis in Three Maps,” Outside the Beltway:  Maps accessed, March 27, 2014.

[3] It is worth quoting President Obama at length.  In a recent interview, Obama stated: “You would have thought that after a couple of decades that there’d be an awareness on the part of any Russian leader that the path forward is not to revert back to the kinds of practices that, you know, were so prevalent during the Cold War but, in fact, to move forward with further integration with the world economy and to be a responsible international citizen.”  Here President Obama asserts the primacy of economic globalization over imperatives of geopolitics and national security.

During the Cold War, US policy advanced “containment,” which sought, wherever and whenever possible, the mobilization of littoral nation-states of Western Europe, East Asia and the Middle East in opposition to the expansion of the Soviet Union.  Then and now, what made the Crimea of particular importance was the fact that on this peninsular, which jutted out into the Black Sea, was located the naval bases from which the Soviet Union could project maritime power into the Mediterranean Sea.  After the implosion of the Soviet Union, Russia retained control over its main naval base at Sevastopol.  Provided the Ukraine remained a friendly power, Russia remained confident that its Black Sea fleet had a home port.  However, a Ukraine which favored the EU and potentially NATO posed an intolerable threat to Russian power.  For Putin, the recent mass demonstrations in western Ukraine and the subsequent flight of the pro-Russian Ukrainian president posed exactly that threat to Russian national security.  

President Obama also claimed that “We [the US and NATO] have no interest in encircling Russia and we have no interest in Ukraine beyond letting the Ukrainian people make their own decisions about their own lives.”  Putin fears NATO expansion, which has had the effect of “encircling” Russia from the west; in addition, Putin promotes national self-determination for Russians in the Crimea, not for the Ukrainians.  Putin no doubt suspects that the United States would welcome the loss of Russia’s naval base in the Crimea to Ukraine; after all, Russia would then lose its naval connection to Mediterranean, thereby rendering the delivery of weapons to Syria (and, now, Egypt) far more logistically difficult.

For above quotes from the interview see Amanda Cochran, “Obama Calls on Putin to Move Troops from Ukraine Border,” CBS NEWS, March 28, 2014:  Accessed March 28, 2014.

Halford J. Mackinder fully appreciated the geo-strategic significance of the Black Sea (and, incidentally, the Baltic).  See his magisterial Democratic Ideals and Reality, Anthony J. Pearce, ed. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1962 (1942)), 109-111.

[4] Robert Rhodes James, ed., Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches, 1897-1963 (London and New York: Chelsea House Publishers and R.R. Bowker Company, 1974), vol. VI, pp. 6004 and 6013.  This is the first of Churchill’s World War II speeches which played such an important role in the Allied victory.