The West doesn't have much sway with Russia. Photographer: Jerry Lampen/Pool via Getty Images
The West doesn't have much sway with Russia. Photographer: Jerry Lampen/Pool via Getty Images

A good deal of U.S. commentary on Ukraine has focused on whether President Obama is being tough enough. The debate is both unrevealing and unhelpful to resolving the serious issue of how to handle a newly expansionist and nationalist Russia.

It is unrevealing because any U.S. leader would struggle to contain Russian actions in the space that falls within Russia's former empire and outside the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. George W. Bush failed to prevent the Russian invasion and dismemberment of Georgia in 2008. And history is littered with other failures to change Russian and Soviet behavior, as the Top 10 list below attests.

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The debate is unhelpful because it distracts from discussion of what sanctions should be for and what they can hope to achieve. It also ignores the art of the possible, in terms of how far ahead of the European Union the U.S. can afford to get in arming Ukraine or sanctioning Russia, before the U.S. becomes the issue and splits Europe. That is a cherished goal of Russian President Vladimir Putin, as it was of Soviet leaders in the past.

As the British security analyst Ian Kearns put it in a recent debate in Riga, Putin is free to act because he thinks the West will be unable to respond effectively if he does, just as in 2008. Regrettably, says Kearns: "At the moment we are demonstrating that Putin understands the West better than the West understands itself."

I do think Obama's foreign policy has been too disengaged and risk-averse. His refusal to arm and train rebels in the early days of the Syria conflict when his security staff advised him to do so is an example. In Ukraine, however, the issue is primarily one of EU foot-dragging on economic sanctions rather than of White House weakness.

The case for sanctions isn't simple. No sanctions can achieve the return of Crimea to Ukraine. Nor will they persuade Putin to give up on the goal of ensuring that Ukraine remains within Russia's sphere of influence: He can't afford to win Crimea but lose Ukraine. At best Putin can be cajoled into cutting a deal in which he stops short of provoking a civil war in Ukraine, splitting the country in two, strangling its economy or forcing its long-term destabilization.

Even with no guarantee that tougher sanctions can save Ukraine, though, they are needed to set limits for future Russian actions. Putin needs to have his assumptions about Western disunity and weakness proved wrong, and his recent call for separatists in eastern Ukraine to postpone Sunday's referendum on independence offers little comfort there. He remains several steps ahead of the West in securing his goals without triggering serious sanctions.

Soldiers building the Berlin Wall. Source: Keystone/Getty Images
Soldiers building the Berlin Wall. Source: Keystone/Getty Images

10 Challenges from Moscow

  • 2014 - Russia annexes Crimea.
    Response: Russia thrown out of the G8 and subjected symbolic sanctions.
    Impact: No.
  • 2008 - Russia invades Georgia and recognizes two separatist territories.
    Response: Sanctions threatened never implemented.
    Impact: No.
  • 1999-2000 -- Second Chechen war
    Response: President Clinton says Russia will pay "a heavy price," but no sanctions follow.
    Impact: No.
  • 1979 - Invasion of Afghanistan.
    Response: U.S. imposes sanctions and arms rebels, EU doesn't follow.
    Impact: Initially no, but Soviets withdraw after 10 years
  • 1968 - Crushing of Prague Spring.
    Response: Condemnation.
    Impact: No.
  • 1962 - Installation of nuclear missiles in Cuba.
    Response: U.S. threatens war.
    Impact: Yes.
  • 1958 - Ultimatum to West to leave Berlin.
    Response: U.S. and Europeans refuse.
    Impact: Yes, but Soviets build the wall.
  • 1956 - Hungarian uprising crushed.
    Response: Condemnation.
    Impact: No.
  • 1948 - Soviets cut land access to West Berlin.
    Response: Massive airlift.
    Impact: Yes.
  • 1944-46 - Soviets support Greek communists in civil war, via Yugoslavia.
    Response: U.S. backs anti-communists and launches containment policy.
    Impact: Yes

The list includes 10 instances of belligerent Soviet and Russian policies that have challenged the U.S. leadership since the beginning of the Cold War. More often than not, the U.S. was unable to thwart the aggression, with the Cuban missile crisis among the obvious exceptions.

Although Russia remains a nuclear superpower, the threat of a nuclear holocaust seems much lower today, and Russia's conventional forces remain a shadow of what they once were. So arguably it should be easier for Obama to take a stronger line than it was for his Cold War-era predecessors. Yet that would be relevant only if the U.S. thought its interests in Ukraine were strong enough to risk war with Russia -- and not even Senator John McCain is proposing that.

The most interesting historical parallel for Ukraine is probably the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Having meddled for years in the affairs of its southern neighbor to fend off the rise of leaders more willing to talk to the U.S., the Soviets moved in after the removal (and execution) of Prime Minister Nur Taraki, who had been friendly to them. The similarities with the fall of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych are evident.

To protest the Afghanistan invasion, the U.S. and some allies boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics. The U.S. also imposed economic sanctions on the Soviet Union, which were ineffectual because Europe refused to join in. In the thick of events in 1979, as now, the U.S. appeared powerless to stop the Soviet intervention and unable to marshal the support of its allies for tougher action.

The U.S. did, however, arm the mujahedin, Muslim fighters who battled the invaders in Afghanistan, and a decade later Soviet forces withdrew. We'll have to see what happens in Ukraine in 10 years' time.

To contact the author of this article: Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Lisa Beyer at lbeyer3@bloomberg.net