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Half-Measures Against Putin

Comment

If you're out for a hike and find a deep, wide chasm in your path, you have a few options. You might give up and turn back. You might devise a way to get over it. You might look for a way around it. What you would not do is jump halfway across.

Half-measures are often worse than none. But when it comes to dealing with Vladimir Putin, they are exactly the ones most favored by both the Obama administration and its congressional critics.

The Russian president moved last year to forcibly seize Crimea from its neighbor and former republic, Ukraine. Ever since, the pro-Western government of Ukraine has been fighting pro-Russian separatists in the eastern part of the country — forces that apparently include some actual members of the Russian military.

The United States and its European allies have responded by imposing economic sanctions in an effort to punish Putin and possibly force him to retreat. The sanctions, reports The Wall Street Journal, "dented the ruble's value, fueled capital flight and sent the oil-dependent economy into a tailspin."

But the retreat has not happened. So the administration has provided Ukraine with "nonlethal defensive security assistance," including medical supplies and night-vision goggles.

American hawks want more. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., says our refusal to ship weapons to Kiev is "one of the most shameful chapters in American history." House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, says if we send arms, "Putin will pay a price for increased casualties — one he is obviously very nervous about paying."

But one rule of national security is to be careful about getting involved in shooting wars with countries that can destroy you — which Russia, with its hundreds of nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles, could do to us in, oh, half an hour.

Another wise policy is to avoid steps that are optically pleasing but practically destructive. Furnishing weapons to Ukraine would expand the bloodshed without altering the outcome.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest noted that Washington can't "provide enough military support to the Ukrainian military that they could overwhelm the military operations that are currently being backed by Russia."

Whatever we do, Putin can do more — and almost certainly will.

Russia has more at stake in Ukraine than we do and is prepared to make greater sacrifices to get what it wants.

But the administration has its own fondness for ineffectual gestures. This week, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said the U.S. will "pre-position" tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles and artillery in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — NATO countries that used to be under Moscow's rule and prefer not to be again.

This step would make it easier to respond to a Russian attack. Carter asserted that it also shows the U.S. and NATO "are absolutely committed to defending the territorial integrity" of the Baltic nations. The New York Times reported that it's meant to serve "as a deterrent the way the Berlin Brigade did after the Berlin Wall crisis in 1961."

Oh? That particular U.S. Army unit was an effective deterrent because its presence assured the East Germans and Soviets that if they tried to seize West Berlin, they would be at war with the United States. It was a simple statement: "If you want to take West Berlin, you'll do it over our dead bodies."

This step allows Putin to suspect that if Russia were to invade, he would not have to fight the U.S. By declining to place actual troops in the Baltics, President Barack Obama gives the Russians a yellow light, not a red one. It's a gesture that conveys a fervent desire to have it both ways: keeping the Russians out without taking any risk.

In that respect, it fits perfectly with our original inclusion of these countries in NATO. We happily extended our security guarantee to countries like Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia only because we assumed we'd never have to make good on it.

Now we find ourselves contemplating the implications of that decision. Are Americans prepared to send U.S. troops to die defending these countries from Russia? Maybe so, and maybe not. But it's a discussion Americans have never had. The president's half-measure allows us to put it off again.

Lacking a solution, he offers an unconvincing facsimile of one. Obama and his opponents disagree on specific policies, but they share an approach to Russia: If you can't do anything useful, do something useless.

Steve Chapman blogs daily at newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/steve_chapman. To find out more about Steve Chapman, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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