The liberal case for US/NATO intervention in Ukraine crisis (Part I – Overview and History)


Introduction to series

This is Part I of a multipart series where TFS’ Justin Snyder and Kartik Krishnaiyer will outline the case against Vladimir Putin and for intervention by the United States in the Ukraine crisis. 

As the world has watched the last 72 hours, the Russian Federation under the leadership of the world’s most dangerous “democratic” despot Vladimir Putin has invaded Ukrainian territory. Putin’s pretext is protecting Russian ethnic minorities in the Crimean Peninsula, which of course was the site of one of the world’s most famous military conflicts. His excuse sounds painfully like Adolf Hitler’s justification for occupying the Sudetenland in  1938. The failure of Britain and France to stop Hitler in 1938 gave the Nazis a critical year to develop military capability and turn the Soviet Union (temporarily) against them. By the time Britain and France declared war on Germany in September 1939, Hitler was in a MUCH stronger position than a year earlier.

Appeasement and inaction continued after the war began. The French failed to invade Germany from the west allowing the Nazis to overrun Poland without much of a fight with its full army. Then the British choose not to occupy neutral Scandinavian countries when the opportunity arose. In the Spring of 1940, Hitler invaded Scandinavia under the pretext of protecting Denmark and Norway from “British and French Imperialism.” This sounds eerily similar to the propaganda in the Crimea from Russian ethnic citizens asking Russia to liberate Ukraine from “US occupation.”

Appeasement of bullying dictators never works. I outlined the 13-year history of Bush and Obama administration appeasement of Putin on Saturday. President Obama’s efforts to “reset” Russo-American relations have merely enabled the Russian dictator to manipulate events across the globe to his liking.  While President Obama posses gifted intellect and has been a tremendous domestic voice for change, in dealing with Russia he has played time and again and is in the process of ceding American global leadership to Putin.

This is very different than in the late 1990s when Bill Clinton and Tony Blair led the western alliance.  Russia’s historic defense of the Serbs led the nation to strongly oppose intervention in the Kosovo conflict. Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian Muslims were being slaughtered by the Serb leadership and the west decided to intervene on humanitarian grounds. Since the UN was unable to take action due to the threat of a Russian veto, Blair and Clinton used NATO to get around the UN. The result was a successful bombing campaign where Russia eventually urged the Serbs to back down. A humanitarian disaster on the scale of what had happened a few years earlier in Bosnia was averted.

The United Nations serves some very real  and positive purposes. But its initial purposes and in fact that of the discredited League of Nations (1919-1945)  are hardly ever fulfilled. Kosovo was a perfect example of why the UN doesn’t work. Butcherous Serb dictator Slobodan Milošević had already demonstrated his willingness to use genocide to exterminate muslim opposition to his rule. Yet the UN at the behest of Russia and China failed to act. Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, two progressive leaders who transformed the politics of their nations could not stand by and acted. Similarly Ukraine’s crisis can be solved by western leaders without any UN involvement.

Historical persecution of Ukrainians and Tatars by first Stalin and then Hitler also justify action. No region suffered more from mass deportations and murders under Stalin and then  Hitler’s war and concentration camps than Ukraine. Russia cannot be trusted in governing this region and quite frankly humanity owes it to an oppressed people whose sacrifices helped to bring down Nazism to protect them. If any people on the planet deserve a break from slaughter and American protection from a humanitarian disaster it’s the people of Ukraine. Quite frankly the world owes it to them.

Ethnic Tatars who are Muslims were forcibly resettled to Central Asia by Stalin in the 1930s. Tens of thousands died en route. Only in the late 1980s did some of the survivors gain the right to return home to Ukraine. However, today those Tatars, who have been big supporters of Ukrainian nationalism are nervous. Will they be slaughtered by Russia the same way muslims in Chechnya and Dagestan have been? Can the US sit idly by if a slaughter or forced resettlement begins?

Nuclear Non-proliferation is an important part of the Ukraine story as well. In 1994, Ukraine signed a treaty with Russia, the United Kingdom and United States guaranteeing that the nation’s sovereignty would be guaranteed. This was done in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear arsenal, what was then the third largest in the world behind the United States and Russia.

From Wikipedia:

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the newly independentUkraine had on its territory what was the third largest strategic nuclear weapons arsenal in the world. It was larger than those of BritainFrance, and China combined. On June 1, 1996 Ukraine became a non-nuclear nation when it sent the last of its 1,900 strategic nuclear warheads to Russia for dismantling.[1] The first shipment of nuclear weapons from Ukraine to Russia (by train) was in March 1994.[2] In return for giving up its nuclear weapons, Ukraine, the United States of America, Russia, and the United Kingdom signed the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, pledging to respect Ukraine territorial integrity, a pledge that was arguably broken by Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea.[3]

Wikipedia has to appear neutral in saying “a pledge that was arguably broken by Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea.” We don’t. Russia’s actions make it much more difficult to commit nations to nuclear non-proliferation if giving up a nuclear arsenal can result in invasion and occupation by a nuclear power inspite of international guarantees to the contrary. Simple logic tells us this.

Anyway you look at it President Obama’s handling of Russia over five years has been poor. Putin has with minimal American opposition been allowed to continue occupying two provinces of Georgia which he invaded in 2008 (thanks to President Obama’s infamous “reset” of Russo-American relations), continue using energy resources as a stick to beat over the head of the west,  gagged the media, passed discriminatory measures against LGBT citizens of Russia and allowed a pattern of overt racism in public (particularly at football matches where foreign black players are subjected to monkey chants and open letters from fans about the need to keep soccer “pure” racially) to permeate Russian society at many levels. While the coddling of Russia began under notable Russophile Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State it has continued under President Obama. In 2012, Mitt Romney warned America about the dangers of Russia in his nomination acceptance speech in Tampa. At the time I told friends and tweeted on social media that even though I was a big Obama backer, Romney had made the most important foreign policy statement of the campaign, one I hoped the President would heed. Unfortunately, events overtook Obama completely the following year as Putin’s bullying behavior well-established from the Bush years took on a whole new dimension, which the President despite some effort was unable to prevent.

The time is now for President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry to prove they can rise to the occasion and defend US interests against the bully that is Vladimir Putin. For years liberals in the United States advocated using the military for humanitarian and defensive purposes only. Intervention in Ukraine serves BOTH aims.  This would not be a strategically naive war of offensive choice like Bush’s Iraq or a war of little significance like Obama’s Libya. This would be a little war to protect humanity and stop a big war from happening. This is something Neville Chamberlain failed to realize in 1938, and I fear Americans are failing to realize in 2014. War of course is not the only option, but it has to be on the table if other options are to have any impact.

In the next part of this series my colleague Justin Snyder will look at possible options for the US and NATO in this crisis.


  1. Patti Lynn · · Reply

    This is a frightening chain of events. A war, even a “small war,” will have collateral damages. That may involve lives as well as property. Hopefully, President Obama will consult with those who have successfully dealt with Putin. Diplomacy first.

  2. Patti Lynn · · Reply

    The NATO countries also must become involved. The oil pipelines may be a factor in their reticence

  3. Blue Dog Dem · · Reply

    Excellent article. Well laid out and argued.

    Problem is the American public is totally ignorant about Ukraine’s importance and the AIPAC crowd would rather to use the American military to fight third rate arab powers who threaten Israel than stand up to the new Stalin.

    It is shameful.

  4. To be clear, are you only suggesting America take up defensive positions in Ukraine to discourage Russia from expanding outside Crimea? I think it’s a big assumption that Ukraine would even be open to that; it might work, or it might also restart the Cold War. But if you’re suggesting that America directly attack Russian forces, you’re definitely suggesting restarting the Cold War and possibly igniting it. Neither one is a good option.

    The coordinated, long-term destruction of Russia’s fragile energy-export-dependent economy is the way the West can reign in Putin without nuclear war, and probably get Putin to be reviled by his countrymen for bringing Russia’s economy to the brink of collapse. Basically, all it will take is boycotting Russian energy exports and imposing international sanctions on their financial system. Unfortunately it will require even more austerity from European nations currently dependent on Russian gas. They might have to bite the bullet and start fracking. It wouldn’t take a very long boycott to make Russia realize how little power it really has. By the time it started affecting Russians on the street, it would be too late for Putin. He would be shown to be an incompetent short-term thinker.

    But I doubt he’s that stupid. I think he’s just going to sit in Crimea this week until they have the referendum, and if they vote for independence or annexation then, at least to me, it will be hard for the West to justify intervention. It’s very similar to South Ossetia, but not Chechnya. At least the Crimeans aren’t trying to secede violently. America promotes self-determination, and what is more self-deterministic than a referendum on independence?

    1. We probably have to accept that the Crimea is gone and Ukraine is being partitioned after that referendum. What we don’t want is further Russian spheres of influence in areas where they will not have public support. That’s why we need to act decisively and prevent that from happening.

      1. One insightful comment I read mentioned that NATO has a policy of not accepting countries that are (even partially) occupied by a bordering country. This excludes Georgia (South Ossetia occupied) and Ukraine (Crimea occupied). If Crimea became independent or annexed, then Ukraine would be free to join NATO if it wanted. So perhaps Putin wants to keep his de facto occupation and not allow Crimea to become independent or annexing them.

      2. very interesting point! Thanks Matt!

  5. I think you were being entirely too harsh on Obama and his views of Russia. He understands how dangerous they are.

    This having been said I think we have little choice but to intervene either with tough diplomacy including expelling Russia from several international organizations or picking up defensive military positions in Ukraine. This would stop the Russian advance.

    My issue with you is your tone assumes automatically Obama will do the wrong thing. You don’t know that yet. Everything he said has been tough and I would not rule out him picking the right action.

    1. I certainly hope he does the right thing. Samantha Power’s speech to the UN was excellent today. Bodes well for the near future.

  6. Shaharazade DeCorday · · Reply

    Great article, thanks for the education.

  7. Mr Florida · · Reply

    Your President (Not Mine) Will cower to Putin and give him whatever He Wants. The remarks that Obama (I will not address him as President) gave to Putin in 2010 to give him more flexibility until the election is a classic example how spineless Barrack Obama is.

  8. Think! · · Reply

    Spot on.

  9. Floridian · · Reply

    Kartik’s views towards anything Putin related are very predictable. That having been stated I do think this is is a very compelling case he lays out.

    Multiple reasons exist to confront Putin and most of them are deadly serious.

    If Obama and the West backdown in this crisis how will affect everything in the future?

  10. Lies were told to the US citizens and to the citizens of the world about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to excuse OUR invasion of that sovereign nation. I have to wonder what would have happened if the world had reacted with sanctions against the US and with threats to protect the people of Iraq with force, if necessary. I guess it is different when we do it. I am not saying we should not do something about Ukraine, but we are on moral shaky ground in doing so.

    1. We would have backed down if EU and China had had the balls to initiate sanction proceedings against us. Ironically, it would have saved a lot of American lives and tax dollars. It’s not a good comparison to the Ukraine situation though. Without the benefit of hindsight, we had more compelling evidence and international support to invade Iraq to look for WMDs. We have committed far less justified interventions than Iraq and Afghanistan: Guatemala and Grenada for example.

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