As Russian President Vladimir Putin's forces took over Ukraine's Crimean peninsula in early 2014, the interim Ukrainian government was debating whether or not to fight back against the "little green men" Russia had deployed. But the message from the Barack Obama administration was clear: avoid military confrontation with Moscow.
The White House's message to Kiev was advice, not an order, U.S. and Ukrainian officials have recently told us, and was based on a variety of factors. There was a lack of clarity about what Russia was really doing on the ground. The Ukrainian military was in no shape to confront the Russian Spetsnaz (special operations) forces that were swarming on the Crimean peninsula. Moreover, the Ukrainian government in Kiev was only an interim administration until the country would vote in elections a few months later. Ukrainian officials told us that other European governments sent Kiev a similar message.
But the main concern was Russian President Vladimir Putin.
As U.S. officials told us recently, the White House feared that if the Ukrainian military fought in Crimea, it would give Putin justification to launch greater military intervention in Ukraine, using similar logic to what Moscow employed in 2008 when Putin invaded large parts of Georgia in response to a pre-emptive attack by the Tbilisi government. Russian forces occupy two Georgian provinces to this day. [emphasis added]
One, that this administration learned that lesson from the Russo-Georgia War of 2008 is amazing.
The implication is that by fighting back, Georgia lost even more territory than they would have if they hadn't fought.
In fact, Russia ended up holding exactly what they had before the fighting started--the Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
It is far easier to argue that the poor showing of Russia's military against the ill-prepared (for conventional war) Georgian military when Russia plunged into the rest of Georgia and appeared to aim for the capital, Tblisi, convinced Russia to pull back and not try to smash independent Georgia for good.
And I did offer advice based on a more accurate reading of 2008 at the time.
But what about the advice, even though it is clearly not based on what actually happened in Georgia in 2008?
Clearly, letting Russia carry out their nearly bloodless takeover of Crimea did not sate Putin's appetite and persuade him not to invade the Donbas.
I know that Ukraine's military and government was in a state of paralysis when Russia invaded Crimea, but even if Kiev could send little, they should have sent whoever would obey orders to attack.
Before Russia's invasion of Crimea, I outlined an immediate counter-attack into Crimea as the best response to invasion.
I realized at the time that my outline was a paper exercise for a paper armed force and did not reflect reality of the ground. But in retrospect, I think Ukraine should have sent even a single company-sized unit, if that's all they had, to attack south into the peninsula and try to shame more to follow.
And give heart to Ukraine's mostly support units in Crimea to hold in place rather than give up.
Who knows? If Russia knew that they faced armed resistance right off the bat, they might have retreated their special forces from their scattered positions to hold just the Sevastopol naval base.
Imagine how different the crisis would be if Russia was penned into Sevastopol only?
Or perhaps Ukraine should have met the bloodless takeover with airlifts of humanitarian supplies to all the scattered Ukrainian units across Crimea, all being broadcast to the world, daring Russians to open fire and give lie to their polite mysterious green men propaganda.
And Ukraine could send ground convoys even as we joined the humanitarian resupply mission.
Whether armed or not, Ukraine should have responded quickly with whatever they had despite their weakness. Certainly, doing nothing about Crimea didn't prevent Putin from annexing that peninsula and expanding his war against Ukraine, which is still ongoing with casualties approaching 7,000.
Yet after the territorial aggression by Russia, nuclear threats against the West, and even a little example of being SOBs, the Russians say we want to restore relations:
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Monday the United States has been sending "signals" that it wants to start mending ties with Moscow, badly strained over the past year and a half by the conflict in Ukraine.
Ah yes, that vague "conflict in Ukraine" that has sadly "strained" relations. Which actually means the very specific Russian invasion of Crimea and Donbas and the annexation of the former.
Lavrov says we want to "mend" relations as if this is our fault and somehow we have to make up for our failings to keep our relations reset shortly after that 2008 war.
UPDATE: Here's an article that is quite wrong. Yes, Bush urged the Georgians not to fight the Russians in South Ossetia when the Russians massed north in August 2008. Georgia definitely erred by shooting first and falling into Russia's trap.
And it was a trap unless you amazingly believe that the then-rusting Russian military managed to instantly respond to Georgia's foolish firing into South Ossetia with an assault right through to Georgia proper.
But once Russia invaded the rest of Georgia, the Georgians absolutely had to fight hard to prevent the Russians from taking the entire country.
Further, the notion that helping Ukraine resist aggression is telling Ukrainians to fight for us is nonsense. Ukrainians want to fight for Ukraine! They aren't dying for us. They're fighting and dying for themselves. They should be punished because we share the objective of halting Russian aggression? We should help them.
And as I've said, we don't need to ship big ticket weapons. Ukraine has plenty to refurbish, I've argued. And they are:
Ukroboronprom made most of its money in the last year by building and refurbishing 2,000 vehicles and even more artillery weapons (guns, howitzers and rocket launchers). Another item in big demand is refurbished communications equipment. Ukraine has a lot of Cold War (pre-1991) era equipment which has been left unused and poorly maintained. This provided a pool of equipment that, with some skill and ingenuity, could be restored to usefulness.
Indeed, I've noted that our new NATO members with their own expertise could help refurbish and modernize the old Soviet-era models.
Ukraine does need capabilities to pull their weapons together like drones, electronic warfare, secure communications, and infantry anti-tank weapons.
And I'd also add in anti-ship weapons to protect their coast from a Russian amphibious assault.
I can understand not wanting America to fight Russia. I sure don't. But does that mean we shouldn't help others defend themselves? Which is what Bush did for Georgia.
And I'll remind you again that after the Georgia War of 2008, Russia held no more than what they held before the war--the provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Isn't that the whole idea behind "leading from behind?" Now our policy should be "everyone retreats until our foes tire themselves or conclude they have enough?"
Already Russia has taken all of Crimea and parts of the Donbas, which Ukraine had controlled. We can only dream of our current policies being as successful as those that responded to Russia's Georgia aggression.