Column: Lessons from Cold War should guide American response to crisis in Ukraine

Events in Ukraine have escalated extremely quickly in the past week, going from an ousting of now-former President Viktor Yanukovytch to the deployment of Russian troops in Crimea, setting the stage for a Russian military takeover of at least portions of Ukraine. Despite President Obama’s warnings of ‘costs’ for any Russian military action, Russian President Vladimir Putin got approval for the deployment of troops by Russia’s parliament, using the idea of “safety and security for Russian citizens and soldiers living in Crimea” as an excuse to justify these actions. In all reality, however, this is a play of power to both support Yanukovytch and maintain covert Russian control over elements of Ukraine while also trying to punish the newly-appointed pro-Western government.

Normally, a situation like this would invoke some sense of conservatism in terms of American military response, as Russia has not eluded to any grandiose plans for world domination and never insinuates that this crisis will lead into another World War, yet the conditions surrounding it do make an admirable case for some form of aid by the United States, the U.N., and NATO. Presently, Ukraine does not have the capability to fight off Russian troops in Crimea (or anywhere, for that matter), as only 3,500 Ukrainian troops are deployed there and are only equipped with light artillery and one division of air forces. On top of that, the entire Ukrainian military is grossly underfunded, equipped with generations-old Soviet hand-me-downs and an air-defense system that is inadequate at best. When pitted against Russia’s military, ranked second in the world (behind only the United States) in effectiveness and technological advancement, Ukrainian forces seem to stand no chance if forced to fight alone. And with Ukraine’s claim of Russia’s ‘declaration of war’ through massive troop conglomeration in Crimea, violent conflict seems inevitable.

So how should the United States respond? Some Congressmen are pining for full-fledged military intervention in the hopes of showing Russia that they can’t simply violate Ukrainian sovereignty and international law and policy without facing the repercussions. Others support a more soft-power tactic, electing not to aggravate Russia but instead try diplomacy and appeasement. Both ideas are wrong.

We’ve been in this situation before. During the Cold War, responses of all types were tried out. All-out military conflicts failed (see both the Korean and Vietnam Wars), whereas those of a lighter, yet equally as strong touch seemed to be successful. First and foremost, America needs to expressly give their support for the Ukrainian people and to the new, pro-Western government. After that, America can begin funneling arms to Ukrainian forces, although no direct military support should be given. If troop aid is necessary, it should come from NATO, not the United States unilaterally. Lastly, and perhaps equally as important as the first step, is to punish Russia diplomatically. Invoking sanctions on top Russian officials, Russian exports, and trying to limit Russian influence globally will force Putin into a situation where he needs to negotiate in order to support Russian interests, or risk the possibility of tipping his hand at machinations for a possible World War III.

As it stands, the crisis in Eastern Europe looms over the precipice of a slippery slope. President Obama needs to navigate with expediency yet extreme caution to avoid provoking a resurgence of Cold War-esque sentiments worldwide. Hopefully he can learn from his predecessors and avoid a conflict of unimaginable magnitude while maintaining Ukrainian sovereignty, all while punishing Russia for its childish actions. When put simply, Mr. Obama has quite a bit on his plate without having ordered a dish in the first place.