Photographer: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Photographer: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

In response to Moscow’s slow-motion annexation of Crimea, some have called for the U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to place trainers and advisers in Ukraine to act as a “tripwire" against further Russian incursions. The idea is that the risk of setting off a conflict with the West would tame Russian President Vladimir Putin's expansionism. "That is something the most rabid Soviet expansionist never risked," writes the Washington Post's Charles Krauthammer. "Nor would Putin."

Standoff in Ukraine

Actually, Putin himself has twice risked a direct confrontation between NATO and Russian troops in order to defend against what he perceived as the alliance’s encirclement of Russia. The broader point, also reinforced by the White House's botched handling of Syria’s chemical-weapons use, is that the U.S. should avoid military tripwires and “red lines” it is not absolutely willing to enforce.

In 1999 it was not a small, symbolic tripwire of U.S. troops that Putin was willing to risk confronting, but a NATO peacekeeping force of five brigades and more than 10,000 soldiers. NATO’s 79-day Kosovo air war had just wrapped up, and defeated Serbian troops were withdrawing from the region. Putin, then the Kremlin's intelligence chief and national security adviser, assured U.S. officials of Russia’s full cooperation in stabilizing the situation. Instead, he knew a convoy of Russian peacekeepers in Bosnia was deploying to Kosovo in advance of NATO forces to seize the Slatina airfield, where they would soon be reinforced by air transports carrying hundreds of Russian paratroopers. General Wesley Clark, the supreme allied commander, wanted to block the runways with Apache helicopters, and he sought authorization to turn back the Russian planes by force. British General Michael Jackson, who was the commander on the ground, famously rejected the orders, stating, “Sir, I’m not starting World War III for you.”

Putin’s gambit ultimately failed when the Russian transports were delayed because of a lack of overflight approval. The outnumbered Russian troops were stranded at the airfield, and a deal was eventually reached that included them in the peacekeeping mission. Nonetheless, Putin was soon elevated to prime minister, and he remained willing to risk confrontation in order to thwart NATO ambitions and keep neighbors within the Russian “sphere of influence.”

His brashness became clear again in the summer of 2008, when a small group of NATO forces was in Georgia on an annual training exercise. That April, NATO officials announced that Georgia would become a member of the alliance, and Putin had responded by warning that this would force Russia to recognize the independence of the restive Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Tensions increased, and in early August those Western troops awoke to the sounds of explosions as Russian forces seized the breakaway provinces. The NATO training units beat such a hasty retreat that some of their vehicles were captured by the Russians, and alliance officials worried that they might become an inadvertent tripwire should the Russians march on the capitol of Tblisi. Fortunately, the Russians held back, although Putin was successful in blocking Georgia's NATO membership.

Human tripwires can be a useful deterrent. But only if the stakes are high on all sides, the red line being defended is clear, and the commitment to act is firm. There is such a clear red line at the borders of NATO countries, and the Barack Obama administration should be lauded for sending air power to Poland and Lithuania in recent days. However, when the perceived stakes are higher for one side than the other, and the facts on the ground are murky and fluid, tripwires can easily blow up in your face. That’s a pretty good description of Ukraine today.

(James Kitfield is a contributing editor for the National Journal and a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.)

To contact the writer of this article:
James Kitfield at james.kitfield@thepresidency.org.

To contact the editor responsible for this article:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net.