Is America still feared by enemies and trusted by friends? The Economist doesn’t seem to think so. This storied magazine recently bemoaned “The Decline of [American] Deterrence.” It highlights President Obama’s recent tour of Asia, during which he was repeatedly questioned about America’s commitment to its allies in the region.
But The Economist and other critics of this administration’s inaction over Ukraine seem unable to distinguish between our peripheral interests and vital interests. Dana Allin and Steve Simon at the International Institute for Strategic Studies define a vital interest as one that, if threatened, would directly endanger us “militarily or economically, or its neglect constituted the betrayal of a solemn moral or strategic commitment that we have undertaken.” Implied in this definition is the use of military force to protect said vital interest.
American vital interests in the region consist of our commitments to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which – notably – does not include Ukraine. Still, member countries, such as the Baltic States, Poland, and Turkey have been shaken by the ongoing turmoil in Ukraine by virtue of proximity and their own troubled histories with Russia and the Soviet Union. Like it or not, their threat perceptions impact the U.S.-underwritten international order, and thereby should be of no small concern to Washington. Consequently, America must respond clearly to Russian military and paramilitary provocations but not in the way The Economist suggests.
Direct military aid to Kiev, as many have suggested, is highly provocative to Moscow. Our diplomatic options are also limited given Russia’s permanent presence on the United Nations Security Council and Europe’s continued freeriding on the U.S. security dividend. Nonetheless, Washington still has a set of viable, indirect military and direct economic options for exerting real influence over a situation in which Russian President, Vladimir Putin, has seized the initiative.
A good start would be enacting a set of policies labeled “Perimeter Defense.” In basketball, perimeter defense is designed to limit an agile opponent’s freedom of movement and vision of the field while forcing weaker than intended actions. It would be wise to follow a similar strategy in the current crisis with Russia. Perimeter Defense would start with the indirect military option of augmenting our NATO allies with U.S. forces. This would involve the semi-permanent deployment of Special Forces and Parachute Infantry Regiments in Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia as was done just days ago in the Baltics and Poland. These light infantry deployments would be augmented by rotational training deployments of Heavy Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs) to Eastern Europe in the manner of REFORGER during the 1970s and 80s. The intent would be to enable their training in response to a pseudo-military incursion (e.g. unmarked green men coming across the border), create a stronger barricade opposed to Russian armed incursions and resurrect a Cold War “tripwire” strategy that is effective against Russian “salami-slicing” tactics.(for those readers unfamiliar with this concept, see the Berlin Brigade or U.S. Forces along the Korean De-Militarized Zone). In doing so, the U.S. would raise the risk of Putin’s current strategy and force him to explore alternatives that are more conducive to NATO’s strengths (e.g. peacekeeping and conflict prevention).
The second component of Perimeter Defense is exploiting economic vulnerabilities within Russia without directly harming our NATO allies’ reliance on commodities and trade with Moscow. Current commentary has suggested comprehensive sanctions designed to impact Russia’s extractive, natural resource industries. This proposed policy is dangerous, however, as pursuing the Russian gas and oil industry will handicap their biggest trading partners: our allies in Europe. A more nuanced approach would be to sanction their mining industries, as this would directly impact Putin’s economic constituency while minimizing blowback on NATO countries. We have also taken the initial step of ejecting Russia from the G8, although not permanently. This must be followed by expanding the limited sanctions on Russian state-owned banks proposed by U.S. Senator Bob Corker and approving the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). These economic policies would enable our military options described above by reducing Putin’s freedom of movement as these sanctions and the reality of TTIP hit home.
Lastly, a Perimeter Defense strategy should exploit political “wedge” opportunities between Putin and his base of support, the oligarchs. Undermining oligarch support of Putin is critical. The foundation of his popularity and resilience is the Russian “economic miracle” that has been enabled through the compliance of the oligarchs. Restricting their movement abroad, denying their access to capital and publicly shaming them and their families may provide enough leverage to create political daylight with Putin. The goal is narrow their “political” field of vision by shrinking the base of support at home for Russia’s extra-territorial operations.
Russia’s actions in Ukraine are unacceptable and in direct violation of international agreements that they are signatory to. However, it is important to correctly calibrate the U.S. response by understanding what our vital interests actually are, as well as what actions will have a demonstrable effect on curtailing further infringements by Moscow. The Perimeter Defense strategy proposed here is designed to introduce uncertainty into Putin’s decision calculus, raise the risks of his intended strategy and force him to proceed along a set of weaker policy options designed to heighten our strategic objectives in the region. This strategy reassures our allies that America stands by its friends, while allowing us to do so in a way that responsibly defends our vital interests.
Stephen Rodriguez (@steverod78) has nearly thirteen years of operational experience from Afghanistan to Colombia in strategic planning, corporate strategy, and business development. He serves on three corporate boards, is a Term Member at the Council on Foreign Relations and a New York Fellow at the National Review Institute. He also Chairman of the Foreign Policy Initiative’s Leadership Council, a member of the Leadership Council at IAVA and the Young Friends Committee of the New-York Historical Society