For a Plan on Ukraine, Look to the Arab Uprisings

Thus far, the Obama administration’s response to Crimea has failed to achieve US interests. By threatening vague “consequences,” the administration is engaging in what political scientists call “cheap talk” - and Russian President Vladimir Putin knows it. The ensuing sanctions race between the US and Russia may create some diplomatic pressure. However, they are unlikely to lead to a resolution to one of the largest crises between the US and Russia this century.

In drafting a better Crimea policy, the administration should draw upon lessons from the Arab uprisings. Like the Crimea crisis, the Arab uprisings that began in December 2010 were (are) a critical period during which the US had an opportunity to shape outcomes that assured its long-term interest. Despite President Putin’s misconceptions to the contrary, the Crimea crisis is not the Cold War. By exploiting three important lessons about statecraft from the Arab uprisings, the United States may still be able to preserve core interests in Crimea and the Ukraine.

Lesson 1: Exploit international norms to its advantage. Case study: Libya

In Libya, the United States invoked the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Building an international coalition, it was able to appeal to the international community’s normative sense of responsibility to craft a NATO response in Libya. Furthermore, it did so after receiving intelligence indicating an imminent humanitarian threat to thousands of Libyans in Misrata.

In Crimea, the United States should leverage international norms in a similar way. Supporting a UN Security Council Resolution is a good start. The United States can also appeal to the people of the Ukraine, support the rights of Tartar and other minorities. It can place itself more firmly at the head of an international normative block in favor of Ukrainian self-determination. It can normatively defang President Putin by following through with National Security Advisor Susan Rice’s attempt on Meet the Press last month to frame Putin’s Cold War tactics as part of “a pretty dated perspective.” These actions will not alone stop Russia. However, they ensure at least some measure of victory for the United States. Even if the US loses core interests in the Ukraine, these actions can solidify an American position of international leadership for future conflicts and antagonizes rising powers in the international arena.

Lesson 2: Give Putin an exit strategy. Case study: Yemen

In Yemen, providing President Saleh with a “golden parachute” was an important part of the transition of leadership there. The President was offered immunity from prosecution and eventually left Yemen for medical treatment in the US. This was an important part of the transition: giving the president a way to leave while saving face. Successful deterrence has always involved giving the adversary a way out, but the Arab uprisings were a reminder of the need for such measures.

In Russia, President Putin will need to be able to claim a win as a prerequisite to accepting any alternative to a continued Russian presence in Crimea. The US objective should be a Russian withdrawal from the Ukraine, and Russia experts can offer proposals that President Putin might be willing to accept. Of course, this willingness is also a function of credibility, which necessitates:

Lesson 3: Back up diplomacy with a credible threat of force. Case study: Syria

Because of American war fatigue and the timing of the outbreak of violence, the Obama administration did not credibly threaten the use of force to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad. However, this choice left the United States with the option of supporting a fractured and in some cases antagonistic Syrian Opposition with limited success. The reasonable evidence that the Assad regime used chemical weapons multiple times in 2013 (on March 19, April 29, August 21, August, 24, and August 25) is proof that President Assad did not assess the US threat of military force to be credible. This failure to take control of the momentum of events in Syria has cost the United States politically and militarily as Iran and non-state adversaries make gains in the country.

Russia is not Syria. President Putin is not fighting for his political life. However, this makes him more open to deterrence - if that deterrence is credible. The United States has shied away from any discussion of the use of force in Eastern Europe. This has harmed diplomatic efforts since the threats of a carrot and stick approach carry no credibility. Military planners can and likely have offered advice about a response which is credible but does not trap the US into actually using force. For example, helping Ukraine fortify its borders with Crimea might be one realistic option. As with any deterrence, the key is not to convince Russia that the US will use force. Rather, the US must make Russia unconvinced it will not use force.

Most importantly, the United States should take advantage of an opportunity to lead. Thus far, the administration’s approach has been cautious. Caution is certainly better than reckless action, especially when it comes to great power conflict. However, when core US interests are at stake, too much caution may turn out to be reckless as well.


The author is a PhD candidate conducting field work in the Middle East.