The situation in Ukraine keeps going from bad to worse, and although no serious commentators or politicians are realistically considering the military option, one might wonder what the use of force to counter Russia might look like. In fact, in some ways the military option makes sense and, if it becomes a necessity in a worst-case sort of scenario, it does not necessarily mean World War III. (In fact, it might just prevent it!)
Russian president Vladamir Putin seems to be hell-bent on annexing Crimea, and as of now there is no indication that he will necessarily stop there. In fact, with the Russian military massed on Ukraine’s border performing military exercises, it seems as though incursions into East Ukraine are not entirely unlikely.
If Ukraine successfully gets NATO status as it is vying for (and as the UK, among others, vocally support), or if Poland successfully convinces NATO that Russia’s actions are threatening enough, it is conceivable that some sort of military action might be necessary. Furthermore, in accordance with the 1994 Budapest referendum, Ukraine does in fact have the guarantee to be defended against aggression that infringes on its territory and sovereignty. The United States has accused Russia of doing both.
Before people start installing bunkers in their yards, there is no need for false alarm. Military action does not mean full-scale nuclear war. Rather, the military option in Ukraine would more likely resemble peacekeeping operations, such as the resolution to the Suez Crisis.
During that crisis, a war of Israel, France, and the UK versus Egypt resulted in threats from the Soviet Union of nuclear war. The resolution was to create a non-conflict zone where UN peacekeepers would ensure that neither side could fight the other.
History has demonstrated that authoritarian governments like Putin’s do not deserve the benefit of the doubt. Furthermore, no one wants to get to the point where open conflict with Russia is necessary. By sending UN peacekeepers into the region, it is likely that it will buy a diplomatic solution more time to succeed. In fact, the reason Putin’s efforts in Crimea have been so successful is that the Russians worked with lightning speed. By slowing Putin down, sanctions and diplomatic isolation may better run their course.
Why the military option makes sense in Ukraine is that, if applied properly, it can stop the escalation of any conflict. By sending in peacekeepers, there is a buffer zone created between the Russians and Ukrainians which will prevent any further violations of the Budapest Memorandum.
However, it may be the case that the UN overseers are not enough to prevent further conflict. As was demonstrated during the Suez Crisis, UN peacekeepers are only effective if both parties accept their presence in the region. Furthermore, Russia would likely unilaterally oppose and veto any UN deployment in Eastern Ukraine.
This might mean that NATO peacekeepers may be necessary. Deploying more resources in Poland will continue to appease their concerns about Russia’s actions. The US has already done so, but it may be necessary to continue to support our allies in the region to prevent their own reactions.
Furthermore, putting NATO troops on the border demonstrates to Russia just how unacceptable its actions are. Russia may have the authority to say no to the UN, but Putin cannot do the same with NATO.
Of course, this military option is not currently being considered for obvious reasons. A beautiful analogy is that it is ill-advised to poke the bear. Putting NATO forces on the ground might dissuade Russia, but in the same sense it could very well make Putin go nuts.
A build up on Russia’s border with Ukraine could be reciprocated by the Putin regime, and given what leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel have suggested about Putin’s mental state, it could be disastrous. Also, it should be duly noted that world leaders that are regarded as sane seemingly do not invade or threaten to invade European countries.
Whatever Putin’s gambit, it is important that the West makes the decision to do what it takes to stop him. In this sense, a limited application of the otherwise taboo military option would be wise to consider. Why would anyone assume that if he can continue to invade territory with unmatched force or impunity, there would be anything to stop him? By putting a buffer zone on the ground, NATO’s allies in the region can feel safe that Russia will not be able to invade without meaningful consequences. In addition, it buys more time for diplomacy, sanctions, and negotiations to make their impact felt and their results tangible. If Putin continues down the road he has paved, UN and NATO action must be seriously considered.
Opinion by Brett Byers-Lane