The Ukrainian Crisis, Part IV: In Extremis

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

Diplomacy seeks to smooth the edges and round the angles of international relationships in the endless search for accommodation.  But the power asymmetry among states and the unbridgeable differences among cultures and religions often make accommodation difficult.  Beyond that diplomacy is complicated by changes in technology, international economics, alliances, new national leaders, and revolutionary ideologies.  For small nations, especially when geographically close to a large and aggressive state, the balance of power is always adverse.  What can the small border state do, as pressures increase amid the prospect of future encroachments?  Alliances can prove uncertain.  In the end, it often comes down to domestic strength, national will and geostrategic imagination in coping with extreme dangers.


Extreme geostrategic situations are not uncommon.  Denmark faced such an extremity when the Germans invaded in 1940.  Overt resistance was futile; surrender, accommodation and passive resistance seemed the better way.  During the Cold War, Finland maintained strict neutrality between the neighboring Soviet Union and the not-so-far-away NATO alliance.  Smaller nations exist in varying degrees of danger and desperation.  

Israel also faces a difficult geopolitical situation.  A small country, surrounded by implacably hostile Arab and Muslim states, Israel lacks strategic depth.  For Israel, the first battle is likely the last battle; there is no opportunity to retreat and regroup.  Israel remains militarily and economically strong but, as Vladimir Jabotinsky noted nearly a century ago, peace is out of the question.[1] For Israel, the current geopolitical status is fragile and the future shows no prospect for improvement.  Arab terrorism and Iranian nuclear development mean that Israel must continue to live with genuine geostrategic dangers. 

The most serious geopolitical danger zone may be the Baltic States.  Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania used to be part of the Soviet Union (1939-1991) and before the Great War were part of Imperial Russia from the time of Peter the Great.  The Baltic republics are a territorial salient stretching from the north-east corner of Poland to approximately sixty miles of St. Petersburg.[2]  Having access to the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Finland, these countries participate in the “commercial-maritime society” of the North Atlantic and, as such, they are a tempting military target.[3]  Under Vladimir Putin, Russia is beginning its inevitable drive to reacquire lost lands and influence.  Putin has justified the takeover of the Crimea on the grounds of allegedly-oppressed Russians and he has the same excuse for intervention in the Baltics.  The Baltic States form part of the Russian “near abroad” which Putin feels he can legitimately annex at the appropriate time.[4]  And that time is coming, perhaps soon.[5]

The Baltic States form a geopolitical flashpoint because they belong to the European Union and are part of NATO.  Under article five of the NATO treaty, an attack on any member requires a response from all, including the United States.  An integral part of the western alliance, the Baltic States should be beyond Putin’s grasp, as Ukraine is not.  Russian expansion ought not to be an existential threat to the Baltic States.

In treaty terms, EU and NATO membership would be a real protection and under a strong American president the treaties would suffice.  But American policies for the past five years in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, the Crimea, and Ukraine have shown the world that President Obama is uncomfortable with the projection, or even the existence, of American power.[6]  He actively seeks ways to avoid using it.  He lacks the moral conviction that America has played a positive role in world affairs.[7] In this he agrees with Putin.  Leaders, from Netanyahu to Putin, think Obama lacks the will to support America’s friends.  They point to Egypt, where President Obama supported the revolution and the Muslim Brotherhood, and abandoned a faithful ally, Hosni Mubarak.  Will President Obama live up to his obligations under the NATO treaty?  There is plenty of doubt in Moscow and the Baltic states.  President Obama appears too weak to defend the Baltic States.[8] [9]  And, if that proves to be so, then what?


If abandoned by President Obama, what geostrategic options do the Baltics possess?  If Russia applied pressure, perhaps by instigating ethnic unrest, the Baltic States could only resort to extreme measures.  The purpose of extreme measures is not to win in a confrontation but to make that confrontation so costly for the Great Power that aggression would not be worth it.  The calculation about gains and losses is standard practice among aggressive powers and is the single point of pressure available to beleaguered smaller states.  Only if confrontation can be made hugely expensive, then, perhaps, can defeat be averted.

The first extreme policy may be called “the Swiss solution.”  This worked well during World War II.  The Swiss armed every citizen and organized them into local militias.  With weapons, ammunition and supplies distributed across the country, the Swiss were able to make every village, ditch or mountain a place for defense.  The Germans would overrun Switzerland, eventually, but the costs would have been staggering and the benefits minimal.  The Germans recalculated the cost/benefit ratio and did not invade Switzerland.  The Baltic States do not have the mountainous natural defenses of Switzerland but they can take the same measures and increase the Russian invasion costs by preparing an all-out defense of urban centers.  The “Swiss solution” worked once; and it might work again.  The costs in the Baltics could be so high that other Russian initiatives elsewhere would become impossible.  The purpose of the “Swiss solution” has always been to deter and deflect the ambition of a neighboring Great Power.

A second extreme solution involves the manufacture, purchase and deploying of weapons of mass destruction.  Great Powers all have nuclear, radiological, chemical and biological weapons in their arsenals, and regard them as deterrents to attack.  Why would the same thing not work for smaller powers as well?  

Of course there is a serious difference between small states and Great Powers concerning weapons of mass destruction.  Great Powers preen and posture, often parading their WMDs, but they show great reluctance to use them.  Mutually assured destruction between Great Powers has worked and shows every sign of continuing to do so.  Smaller states rarely mention their weapons of mass destruction and often deny they even have them.  But smaller states have shown a willingness to use WMDs as force multipliers.  Syria and Iraq have used chemical weapons and few doubt that India or Pakistan would use nuclear weapons against each other should the occasion demand it.  Israel allegedly holds a substantial arsenal of WMDs, including nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them.  Since Israel has already armed the entire Jewish population, the WMDs form a second line of defense through deterrence.  But if the moment came, no one doubts that Israel would use every weapon in its arsenal, regardless of the enemy.  As with the Baltic States, every serious threat from abroad is existential in nature.

Baltic States could travel this road.  Nuclear weapons seem out of the question,[10] now at least, but chemical or radiological weapons are not.  Whether used against advancing troops or unsuspecting civilians, these weapons can do a lot of damage.  Moreover, international condemnation means little to a threatened Small Power.  The conundrum Small Powers face is simply this: they need to keep such weapons secret while somehow letting a potential adversary suspect WMD development and deployment.  When a Small Power has nothing further to lose, in those circumstances extreme policies make sense.

The previous policies are based on hope, the hope that an aggressive Great Power will reconsider the costs and troll for other fish.  There is a third extreme policy, one based on desperation.  The Great Power has not been deterred.  The smaller state is going to be swallowed up, perhaps as a diplomatic satellite, or integrated forcefully into an unfriendly economic system, or subordinated culturally, or simply annexed.  For the Baltic States, these threats are real and permanent.  If these states cannot rely on President Obama to live up to his treaty obligations[11] and if the arming of the whole populace and acquiring weapons of mass destruction will not keep the Russian bear at bay, then a desperate situation will call for the most desperate measures.

The third extreme policy is a preemptive strike.  Victory is only the most remote of possibilities but a preemptive strike can do a great deal of damage, particularly with current technology in the arenas of precision-guided missiles and drones, or even massive numbers of rockets.  Would anyone do this, which seems to border on insanity?  Hamas already shoots rockets at Israel.  Their hatred and desperation are greater than any fear of consequences.  The governments of the Baltic States might borrow from Hamas’ play book by launching rocket barrages, raining them down on Russian urban centers or the naval base at Kaliningrad.[12]  Russia executed a cyber-strike on Estonia in April of 2007, shutting down banks and government agencies.  A preemptive cyber-attack on the Russian pipeline infrastructure, including the Nord Stream pipeline from Russia to Germany, might work even better for the Baltic States.[13]  A credible threat of technological carnage, which Israel can initiate, and the Baltic States might also manage, can combine deterrence with a potential preemptive strike into a coherent policy.[14]  

A preemptive strike against a major power requires both a conviction of an acute and imminent threat and a sense that defeat, however bad, seems better than passive surrender.  Communal unity and commitment lie at the core of a decision to launch a preemptive strike.  Of course, this is merely geostrategic theory.  But it does happen.  A preemptive strike against an aggressive Great Power (America) is precisely how the Japanese viewed the attack on Pearl Harbor.  In the teeth of the American export embargo on the scrap metal necessary for the Japanese war effort, the Japanese felt there was nothing else they could do.[15]  The preemptive strike seemed crazy at the time, at least to Admiral Yamamoto, but the alternatives were seen in Tokyo as war or eventual defeat without war.  The national samurai spirit of Japan could not accept defeat through inaction and surrender.  An extreme situation produced an extreme response and, as is so often the case, an extreme consequence.


The sense of extreme vulnerability is part of the current state system of international affairs.  Ethnic “shatterbelts” combine opportunity for Great Powers and danger for their weaker neighbors.  The most unstable “shatterbelt” extends in a giant arc around the Russian cultural and ethnic core, the “near abroad” stretching from the Baltic States to north of the Himalayas, from Estonia to Kazakhstan[16] and beyond.  Here the collapse of the Soviet Union left Russian ethnic populations scattered in territories currently ruled by religious, racial, and linguistic “others.”  Ukraine is currently in the eye of the storm, as the Caucasus was once, with Georgia and Chechnya, and the Baltic States may become.  The area Russian “Near Abroad” combines Small Power vulnerability with the possibility of ethnic conflict, the breakdown of diplomatic accommodations, and the possibility of an extreme response.  The Russian Near Abroad has those sharp geopolitical angles and edges that breed conflict.

Diplomats and strategists may argue, of course, that extreme situations, which are common, nonetheless rarely lead to extreme actions.  This is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough.  In an age of WMD, even the most unlikely extreme response could be catastrophic.  One preemptive strike is enough.  Remember Pearl Harbor.


[1] See Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s compelling argument in “The Iron Wall,” Jewish Virtual Library (November 24, 1923):; accessed April 27, 2014.

[2],18.937763,5z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m2!3m1!1s0x46f4d7d988201b2b:0xb43097ae8474cb3; accessed April 27, 2014.

[3] Edward Whiting Fox, History in Geographic Perspective: The Other France (New York: W.W. Norton, 1971).

[4] Putin’s goal is to turn the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Finland into Russian-dominated lakes, just as the conquest of the Crimea is the first step toward dominating the Black sea.  It is from this maritime perspective that one should appreciate the geostrategic importance of the Baltic States and the Crimea.  For a theoretical treatment of the relationship of the Baltic and Black Seas to the “heartland,” consult Halford J. Mackinder, Democratic Ideals and Reality, ed. by Anthony J. Pearce (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1962 edition), pp. 109-110.

[5] Russia Starts Combat Helicopter Training Flights on Baltic Border,” RIAOVOSTI, April 30, 2014:, accessed May 7, 2014.

[6] Recent evidence of Obama’s and NATO’s continuing weakness is the proposed (and inadequate) 4000 man strong rapid deployment force to be drawn from various member countries on a rotating basis.  Sam Jones and Christian Oliver, “Nato Rapid Reaction Force…,” Financial Times, September 1, 2014:; accessed September 5, 2014.

[7] Nile Gardiner and Morgan Lorraine Roach, “Barack Obama’s Top 10 Apologies: How the President Has Humiliated a Superpower,” Heritage Foundation; accessed April 27, 2014.

[8] Obama has also degraded American military power.  See, for instance, Seth Cropsey, Mayday: The Decline of American Naval Supremacy (New York: Overlook Duckworth, 2013).  Obama appeases regional powers – such as Russia and Iran – while weakening the US; Chamberlain appeased Hitler as Great Britain built up its armed forces.

[9] If push comes to shove – and it may not, for Putin may think that the Baltic gambit would be too big a chance to take – there is no absolute guarantee that President Obama will be then as weak as he has been.  After all, if President Obama abandons the Baltic States, NATO collapses, as does every other American alliance.  In the face of all that the Baltic States, like Serbia in 1914, could be the place where war begins.  

[10] A nuclear-based defense must be “survivable” in order to be credible; otherwise, “it would invite a first strike in a crisis.”  See John J. Mearsheimer’s prescient article, “The Case for a Ukrainian Nuclear Deterrent,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 72, No. 3 (Summer, 1993), p. 50:, accessed May 4, 2014.  It must be noted that had a Ukrainian nuclear deterrent existed, Russia might not have undermined its territorial integrity; nevertheless, in the current circumstances of political disintegration, the presence of nuclear weapons in Ukraine would probably result in their disappearance, sale or seizure by local warlords.

[11] See recent discussion of the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances by Jeffrey Scott Shapiro, “Obama Inaction on Ukraine Could Impede Nuclear Disarmament,” The Washington Times, September 1, 2014,; accessed September 5, 2014.

[12] It is worth remembering a recent Israeli responses to rocket fire from the Gaza: Operation Cast Lead and Operation Protective Edge.

[13] William J. Broad, John Markoff and David E. Sanger, “Israeli Test on Worm Called Crucial in Iran Nuclear Delay,” The New York Times, January 15, 2011:; accessed April 27, 2014.

[14] Missiles and a cyber-strike, such as Stuxnet, define the preemptive options for many smaller states.  The Baltic States have one additional option.  They can expel the ethnic Russian population, sending resident civilians back to Russia.  Since Putin is using the real and/or alleged mistreatment of Russians in Ukraine as his excuse for annexing at least part of that state, the Baltic States could nullify that pretext by sending their Russian citizens home (or even by offering them cash incentives to leave.)  In themselves, the Russian civilians in the Baltic States, many of them pensioners, do not form a threat, and over time the problem should diminish.  It is the Putin doctrine that an alleged mistreatment of Russians anywhere requires rescue by the Russian state.  Expulsion, though a brutally hostile act, might avoid problems down the line.  It would, of course, also be an open recognition of Putin’s long term intentions and considered by Putin a provocation.  Preemptive strikes always involve great risk.

[15] George Friedman and Meredith LeBard, The Coming War with Japan (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991).

[16] Casey Michel, “Putin’s Chilling Kazakhstan Comments,” The Diplomat, September 3, 2014,; accessed September 5, 2014.