Do not treat Russia like a superpower, it isn't

US President Barack Obama is actually acting rather prudently in his response to the invasion.

The Russian invasion of Crimea is causing a fluster of opinions around the world about Russian President Vladimir Putin's ultimate goal. The invasion of Ukraine’s territory is Moscow’s response to the recent ouster of the pro-Kremlin Ukrainian president.

Clearly, Moscow cares very little about any US or Nato military threats to expel Russian forces from Crimea.

What was interesting in this Crimea debacle was the immediate outcry that the US intervene to push Russia out of Crimea. This is a patently ridiculous suggestion, irresponsible, and shows a blindness to the geopolitical realities which led to the current flare-up.

Aside from the admittedly poor foreign policy decisions that could certainly have encouraged Russia to conduct this invasion, to an extent US President Barack Obama is actually acting rather prudently in his response to the invasion.

He should not be doing anything and he’s not. Mr Obama should be sitting on his hands, militarily speaking, and he is.

Sure, the US has sent secretary of state John Kerry to Kiev but Mr Obama is simply not willing to take this any further. And inaction, while it gets the fires of ridicule burning in Washington, is the US President’s best move right now.

Mr Obama must show Mr Putin and the world that Russia is not a peer nation and the only way of achieving that is to ignore all his movements in Crimea and treat Russia as the regional power it is.

So long as Moscow doesn’t try to overextend its reach, the US can use its covert and political resources to make it difficult for Russia gain heavier regional power but it can’t really do anything about it forcefully.  

This appears to be the US strategy, and it is a good one, even if it worries US allies elsewhere.

In Russia’s backyard

It also pays to remember this is all happening in Russia’s backyard, so it’s much easier for Putin to do something about his strategic position than it is for the Nato powers to act.

The Russian Black Sea Fleet is stationed in Crimea, at Sevastopol, which makes it Russia’s only warm-water port. Losing this would be a huge blow for Russia.

But it was never clear this port was actually under any threat when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s government collapsed last month.

Mr Putin’s game is deeper than just a port. He wants political theatre. He wants a show. And above all, he wants a reaction from the West. Not a military response – that would be crippling for both sides and everyone in between.

The reaction he wants is a clear, unambiguous display from the US and Nato about just how far they are willing to go to protect their allies in Europe and elsewhere. Mr Putin expects Mr Obama to shrug his shoulders and look away.

The Russian president knows that if he can get this reaction, he can turn it around on the entire Former Soviet Union and say, “See? The US gives you these promises but how safe do you really feel?”

At this point it appears Mr Putin will get what he’s looking for. But the US is not going to lose the propaganda war to Russia so easily. It would be very surprising if the US does not have a planned answer to the Russian Crimea gambit.

A new Cold War?

Russia is trying to ignite another Cold War to some extent. But it will be a Cold War it can win this time around. The Europeans don’t have any interest in replaying that game, and the US is looking away from Eurasia and really don’t care what happens to a large extent.

A few of America’s allies (think Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria) will be more than a little worried with US inaction in Crimea. After all, they want the assurance that if Russia tries the same thing with them, that the US will back them up no questions asked.

Then again, seeing how easy it was for Russia to occupy Crimea this month, without so much as a US missile waiting to defend the region, they must be feeling extremely anxious.

But then Russia isn’t stupid.It's not looking to take anything else by force in Eastern Europe, or anywhere for that matter. If Kiev decides to mobilise troops to retake Crimea (and they’re not going to) it would be very surprising if the troops respond to the interim government’s orders.

The Russian military is not the 1991-era depleted and demoralised skeleton any longer. With the testing of the ballistic missile this morning, Moscow is showing the world that whatever happens, it is willing to take this the whole way.

Ultimately though, it won’t need to, and that’s the interesting thing in all this. Because Nato does not have the stomach or the force structure to intervene on the level necessary to convince Russia to pull out or force Mr Putin to back down.

President Putin doesn’t want to start a shooting war anyway. He has central Europe and eastern Europe all tied up economically, with billions of barrels of oil and natural gas purchased from Russia each year.

This is also why the sanctions being threatened by the UN and the EU will be pathetically weak if they pass. It simply goes against all of the EU member’s national interest to pressure Russian energy deliveries.

Good moves still remain

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. The US can take some steps to pressure Russia.

  • Washington could keep Senator John Kerry in Ukraine for the medium term to establish a diplomatic fast-line.
  • It could eject Russia from the G8 meetings, which would hurt Moscow’s prestige internationally.
  • The US could also assist Ukraine in setting up alternative energy sources in the event Russia ceases its deliveries, although this would take time.
  • It could use the aircraft carrier group in the Mediterranean to conduct a show of force, forcing the Russian Black Fleet to shift position rather than confront the carrier group directly, thereby undermining the Russian military position in Crimea.
  • It could publically expose Russian plans gleaned from intelligence to embarrass Moscow.
  • And it might find useful increasing intelligence and military support to Kiev and planning for the eventuality of what would happen if Ukraine confronts Russia militarily in Crimea and loses.

With all this said, the US is certainly losing important military credibility in an increasingly unstable world. What the US need to ensure against is the death-by-a-thousand-cuts result.

Small movements in the Russian periphery might seem manageable now but there will be a point where they become a problem too big to counter easily. At this stage, the US will wish it had acted sooner and more forcefully.

Nevertheless, Mr Obama and Mr Putin both have plans to use the Crimean invasion to their interests. The game is far from over.

Nathan Smith has studied international relations and conflict at Massey University. He blogs at INTEL and Analysis