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At Aspen Security Forum, pondering how to confront Russian bear in Ukraine

Washington’s accusation Thursday that Russia has fired its artillery across the border at Ukrainian military positions hit this Aspen Security Forum like a thunderbolt.

It upset assumptions that, in the face of international condemnation over the shooting down of a Malysian airliner last week, Putin would pull in his horns.

“At a time when some folks could convince themselves that Putin would be looking for a decision to de-escalate, he’s actually taken a decision to escalate,” said Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey in an appearance late in the day.

This Aspen Security Forum brings together some of the most experienced diplomatic, military, security and counterterrorism minds in the business to talk about America’s security. And while the focus of the panels was heavy on the latest threats to the security of the U.S. homeland, Russian president Vladimir Putin’s upending of the post-Cold War chessboard in Europe has overshadowed many conversations here, on stage and over meals.

And after two days of conversation, the only conclusion I can reach is, this collection of experienced hands is at a loss on how to respond. Indeed, hours before news broke of the artillery strikes, former CIA acting director John McLaughlin — referring to the inquiry into the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 — remarked drily, “all this focus on whodunit tells me we don’t know what to do. We haven’t figured out how we can lead on this, or what to do if we could.”

The profundity of what is happening was not lost on Gen. Dempsey.

“You’ve got a Russian government that has made a conscious decision to use its military force inside another sovereign nation to achieve its objectives. It’s the first time since 1939 or so that that’s been the case.”

There was some confusion in the audience as to whether he was referring to Joseph Stalin’s invasion of Poland that year or Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia. But his larger point couldn’t be missed.

“They clearly are on a path to assert themselves differently, not just in Eastern Europe, but Europe in the main and towards the United States.”

“For 17 years, we’ve been predicated on the sense that we could form a partnership with Russia,” U.S. ambassador to NATO Douglas Lute said this morning. “That’s no longer the case today. Though it didn’t seem for all those years that it was a faulty premise.”

What to do? So far, the answers haven’t changed — keep raising the economic costs to Putin, in hopes of persuading that it’s in his self-interest to change course. British Ambassador to the U.S. Peter Westmacott predicted that Europe, despite the financial pain involved because of its economic interdependence with Russia, would step up to tougher sanctions — some limits to arms sales to Russia, to Russian access to financial capital, sanctions on financial organizations in Russia.

“What we’re seeing after the shooting of the airplane, is a strong sense of anger,” he said.

That anger has yet to translate to action, however. And the idea that Putin would be vulnerable to economic pressure, an article of faith until now in the Obama Administration, has yet to be proven true.

It fell to retired Gen. Wesley Clark, former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, to put what Putin is doing in even a broader context, one that could force a rethinking of NATO actions and doctrine. Putin’s hybrid covert and overt war in Ukraine is about even more than his desire to keep Ukraine from falling entirely in the European orbit.

“This is Putin’s war against NATO,” said Clark. “What’s happening in Ukraine is a real threat to the structure,” he said, and if the U.S. is going to hold its own against future challenges like those posed by China, “we have to be able to count on NATO and Europe.”

Certainly NATO is going to have to have a more coherent response than the European Union has on sanctions. Many here, including Dempsey and Lute, said the NATO summit in September in Wales — originally designed to deal with Afghanistan wind-down — will now also focus on the destabilization of Europe.

Off-stage, Lute predicted that NATO is likely to revisit the pledges it made to Russia after the Cold War, as it moved to accept former Warsaw Pact countries and former Soviet republics like the Baltic states into the alliance. NATO may now conduct exercises, pre-position equipment and build base infrastructures in those Easternmost members for possible use in the future.

“We kept our end of the bargain, which was not to do those things,” Lute said. “But the Russians didn’t keep theirs, which was to protect the sovereignty of the countries on their border.”

But if Putin is really driven, as former national security Zbigniew Brzezinski puts it, by a kind of “quasi-mystical chauvinism” and a drive to restore Russian greatness in the czarist mold, such measures aren’t likely to change his calculus. NATO will have to revise its post-Cold War assumptions from the ground up. Again, it fell to former CIA man John McLaughlin to sum it up.

“Putin is more afraid of Ukraine moving west than he is of sanctions. And this is a core interest for him,” he said. “While it’s an interest of ours, we’re not sure how far we are ready to go.”

Perhaps the only option left to NATO will be a return to a form of Cold War-era containment.

But militarily, with perhaps a little help from its Western “friends,” non-NATO Ukraine will have to fend for itself.

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