Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Fear Itself: Ukraine Edition

The single most important thing Barack Obama needs to do about Ukraine is not to panic. The single most important thing anyone else in the United States can do about Ukraine is not to panic Barack Obama. Developments in the Crimea are extremely dangerous, and that's exactly why everybody needs to calm down.

I have no idea whether or not Obama is handling this situation well or badly. Neither does anybody else who's not party to what he's telling other international leaders on private lines. How Obama is handling things is about what he's saying to people like Angela Merkel and about how those people responding. I don't think there will be any way to measure his success or failure for a while.

On the other hand, it's clear from the other side of the planet that Vladimir Putin has panicked and committed himself when he shouldn't have. There is virtually no endgame in which Russia doesn't lose more than this stupid adventure was worth. There are many endgames where things spiral out of control because Putin continues to panic or is too afraid of losing face to do what's in his own self-interest. He's dangerously unpredictable right now, and that is more than bad enough. What we really don't need right now is another nervous world leader scared to lose face. That's a recipe for a  spasm of pointless bloodshed that will leave scars on that region for a generation.

Of course, the American news media is essentially an industry of panic. So your TV is full of panicky or opportunistic people shouting loudly that Obama should panic right now. They're saying that Obama has to do something, by which they mean look like he's doing something. They complain that Obama is not tough enough, by which they mean that he does not act tough enough. Again, I have no idea how tough Obama is or isn't being behind closed doors. What I do know is that acting tough is seldom a sign of actually being tough. And acting tough because other people call you weak is absolutely a confession of weakness.

I don't know anything about the Ukraine situation. But some things are obvious:

1. There is not a military solution to this, and any military intervention will make things worse. The point is to keep the violence from expanding. And fighting a top-five military power on its own borders is not winnable; any "victory" would cost far more than it would be worth. It just can't be done.

Anyone demanding that Obama "get tough" by flexing military muscle needs to go to their quiet corner, get their binky, and soothe themselves for a while.

2. What's already happened cannot be reversed quickly.  Obviously, our preferred fantasy outcome is that the Russian troops just pack up and go back to Russia quietly, cleaning up their litter as they go. But that's just a fantasy. They may eventually leave peacefully. They will not immediately leave peacefully. Getting them out without bloodshed will take some time. Attempting to get them out by force won't be quick either, and there's no way to predict how it would go.

Anyone demanding, in essence, that Obama make this never have happened is simply freaking out, and should be disregarded.

3. No Russian leader is going to pull back an invasion force because the President of the United States tells him to. It doesn't matter who that President is. I mean, that's just crazy talk. This is not about us.

4. There is no workable solution to this that doesn't leave Russia access to its naval facilities in Crimea. Even if you, like me, know approximately zero about Russian history, you know that access to a warm-water port has been one of Russia's key strategic goals for centuries. That didn't change in the last six months, and it's not going to change in the next six months either. Putin's panicky invasion is at least partly a response to fear of losing key Black Sea bases, and that's a totally reasonable fear that he has acted on foolishly and unreasonably.

If this ends with the Russians backing out but keeping their naval bases, that is the best case scenario. Those bases are their only legitimate strategic goal. If you hear people complaining that Obama is "too soft" because this ends with the Russians keeping their main Crimean base, those people are out of their minds. If this ends with the Russians only in those naval bases, that would be the best outcome imaginable.

5. There is no military situation that panicking will not make worse.

Not panicking is not itself the solution. Obama can't turn this around simply through the force of his personal calm. But he can't do anything positive if he doesn't stay calm. This problem demands a cool head and a steady hand. Flipping out and getting emotional will only invite disaster.

cross-posted from Dagblog

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