As matters continue to escalate between Ukraine and Russia in Crimea, many are quickly calling for action in response by the United States. They say it is our duty as a leader on the world stage, and claim that if the U.S. does not take action then it conveys to the world that we are inept and will not take action in response to aggression around the world. Of course, when people call for action they really mean military action. This is probably because utilizing the military is the most overt, visible, and rapid response. We are living in a very fast time. We used to think the 24-hour-news reporting cycle was fast, but then we discovered live-tweeting of world events. We find out about things quickly and along the same vein we want to see responses quickly. There can be no doubt in the media and public perception that if missiles start firing and troops begin landing then we are taking action. Though always defaulting to the military might convey action, it might not be the best course of action.
We too often confuse military strategy with grand national strategy and military power with national power. We oversimplify and forget the diplomatic, information, and economic aspects. When these are coupled with the military aspect we get the nice acronym DIME (diplomatic, information, military, and economic) that many of us are familiar with from doctrine. A military response would most certainly be the most rapid and overt, but those features alone do not make it the most appropriate. Military power is so much more than utilization of force. Possessing credible military capability can add validity to efforts of diplomacy, economics, and gathering of information. The military is an essential element of national power, but as the saying goes, if all I have is a hammer (or all I think about is a hammer), then all of my problems look like nails.
Unfortunately we tend to think of events in terms of a duel. Each side takes their predetermined shot and in the end whoever is left standing wins. In reality, international relations are more like a game of chess. You have many different moves at your disposal and every more you make (or do not make) will have implications for every following move. The question of what we lose or gain from action – as compared to inaction – must be asked. Inaction by a party does not imply maintaining a status quo. International relations are dynamic and continuously evolve regardless of whether the U.S. takes proactive military action or not.
If military action is not taken by the U.S. or NATO in Ukraine, what is to gain and what is to lose? If Russia expands its sphere of influence to encompass Crimea, it will secure control of Sevastopol and its coveted warm-water port for the Black Sea Fleet. This has been a strategic goal for Russia since the 17th century, but is it worth the cost? In the end it might be that Russia is winning the battle but losing the war. An invasion of Crimea could have long-lasting political ramifications that overshadow gaining lasting control of a warm-water port. Gaining Crimea could mean Russia losing its influence in Ukraine and Georgia. Seeing Russia’s aggressiveness and willingness to take military action to achieve its goals could be just the motivation Ukraine and Georgia need to grow closer to NATO and the European Union.
Though it appears Russia will expand its influence to encompass Crimea, it may not be a lasting influence. The major ethnicities in Crimea are 58% Russian, 25% Ukrainian, and 12% Crimean Tatars. Even before the invasion, the Ukrainians were not very fond of the Russians, so the sentiment from Crimea’s 2nd largest ethnic group will only worsen. Along the same lines, the Crimean Tatars have been very anti-Russian since the mid-20th century. Russia may gain its coveted warm water port, but it may come with a hornet’s nest throughout Crimea that it will have to deal with for years to come.
Even before committing forces in Ukraine, Russia had a lease for use of the naval base at Sevastopol, so Russia gaining control of Crimea is not a significant change in that respect. What is much more significant is it coming with the opportunity to expand the influence of NATO to former Soviet bloc nations and potentially having unrest in Crimea that Russia will have to dedicate resources to address for years to come. Military inaction in favor of expanded diplomatic, information, and economic actions in the region could be the best option.
LT Jason H. Chuma is a U.S. Navy submarine officer who has deployed to the U.S. 4th Fleet and U.S. 6th Fleet areas of responsibility. He is a graduate of the Citadel, holds a master’s degree from Old Dominion University, and has completed the Intermediate Command and Staff Course from the U.S. Naval War College. He can be followed on Twitter @Jason_Chuma.
The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.