Argument

How to Beat Down a Bully

There's only one way to stop Putin's ugly new doctrine of irregular intervention -- hit back even harder.

The international community is at long last beginning to take a strong stand against Moscow's aggression in eastern Ukraine. There is solid evidence indicating not only that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down by Russian-aided rebels in eastern Ukraine, but that the Kremlin has bolstered the rebels with heavy artillery despite toughened Western sanctions. Moreover, Russia has massed over 45,000 soldiers near the eastern Ukrainian border, who are poised to undertake a "humanitarian operation." The large convoy of trucks Russia is sending to aid rebel-held Lugansk could prove to be a thinly disguised Trojan horse, setting off a major showdown once it arrives at the border.

President Vladimir Putin's double game has only ramped up since the downing of MH17, in response to the recent gains Ukraine's military forces have been making against the rebels. After a turning-point victory in liberating the strategic town of Slavyansk last month, the Ukrainian military has gone on to retake three-fourths of its lost territory and is now pounding the last two major rebel strongholds, Donetsk and Lugansk. Many of these rebels are not just pro-Russian sympathizers, they are full-fledged Russian citizens -- including some notorious bad apples like Igor Strelkov and Vladimir Antyufeyev, whom Russia previously used in not-so-subtle attempts to destabilize former members of the Warsaw Pact. Now Moscow is also aiding them by firing artillery across the border at Ukrainian forces attempting a final rout of the rebels.

The time has come for the West to make a decisive move to counter Putin's irregular war against Ukraine. The Russian president has introduced a perilous new norm into the international system, namely that it is legitimate to violate the borders of other countries in order to "protect" not just ethnic Russians, but "Russian speakers" -- with military means if necessary. Putin has notoriously threatened to annex Transnistria, the Russian-speaking territory of Moldova, inter alia. The Putin Doctrine represents a serious transgression of the status quo that has guaranteed the continent's security since the end of World War II; moreover, it violates the most essential tenet of the post-1945 international order.

The aim of Western actions must involve compelling Russia to end all support for the rebels in eastern Ukraine and ensure complete respect for Ukraine's territorial integrity. In order to bring about this result -- and ensure Moscow does not continue its dangerous double game -- a comprehensive approach is needed. It should consist of three elements: even tougher economic sanctions; military armaments to Ukraine; and an updated NATO strategy. The combined effect of this approach is to persuade the Kremlin that the cost of its Ukraine adventure and aggressive pursuit of the Putin Doctrine is too high.

The West has imposed economic sanctions on Russia for the past several months, but the results thus far have been feeble. The problem is partly that the sanctions started small and were only slowly ratcheted up. Moreover, European sanctions have been noticeably weaker than U.S. measures, feeding Putin's calculation that he can continue to act as he chooses, while a reluctant Europe hesitates to impose sufficiently punishing measures.

The sanctions that the United States and the European Union put in place on July 29, however, are strong enough to get Moscow's attention. Indeed, despite Russia's counter-sanctions on European and American food products, Putin is witnessing the failure of his efforts to split Europe from the United States -- not to mention the larger failure of preventing Kiev's new government from tilting to the West. But these measures have not been enough to actually deter Russia from continuing to intervene in eastern Ukraine. The West needs to make clear that the latest sanctions will not be the last if Moscow's aggression is not rapidly terminated.

The second part of a comprehensive strategy is to make it easier for Ukraine to re-establish control in its restive east. Since his late-May election, President Petro Poroshenko has conducted a successful counteroffensive against the rebels in eastern Ukraine. His forces have resealed a significant part of its eastern border and taken back much of the territory seized by the rebel forces. But as Poroshenko's troops have advanced, Moscow has increased the amount and sophistication of military supplies to Ukraine, including the SA-11 surface-to-air missile system that shot down MH17 and the SA-13 system. Thus far, his multiple requests for direct lethal aid have only met with reluctance in Brussels and Washington.

The West has dithered under the assumption that providing lethal aid to Ukraine would escalate the conflict. But a sanctions-dominant approach clearly has not prevented escalation. Indeed, with France's determination to sell the Mistral ships to Russia, the West is in the peculiar position of arming the aggressor and forbidding arms to the victim. If Russia does not cease firing missiles at Ukrainian forces and supplying the rebels with arms and equipment, and does not pull troops back from the border within two weeks, the West should begin supplying Ukraine proper with anti-tank missiles, anti-aircraft missile batteries, and a variety of additional infantry weaponry. And it should immediately threaten to do even more if Russia invades eastern Ukraine -- including inviting Kiev to join NATO.

The third element of a comprehensive strategy against Moscow requires a clear-eyed understanding of the Putin Doctrine. His stated right to "protect" Russian speakers is an invitation to intervene along Russia's border in all directions, including in the territory of America's NATO allies in the Baltics and elsewhere. For this reason, Washington's response must involve a new approach at NATO for managing the Russian relationship. The NATO-Russia Joint Doctrine that concluded in the late 1990s, which saw Russia as a partner, and which spoke of not building military infrastructure in the new NATO members or permanently deploying major military equipment and forces, needs to be reviewed. Publicly.

The small steps taken earlier this year to reassure NATO's eastern members -- Baltic air policing, NATO maritime movements, several small-scale NATO exercises, placement of U.S. and Western European aircraft around the Baltics and in Poland, and the deployment of a company of U.S. paratroopers to Poland -- need substantial reinforcing. If Russia fails to respond to tougher sanctions, pointed diplomacy, and lethal aid supplied to the Ukraine military, the allies must take further measures at September's NATO summit in Wales.

It would be prudent to follow up NATO's suspension of cooperation with Russia with an official review, with one of the options being maintaining the suspension and another being to end it and all other forms of cooperation. Because Washington still needs Moscow's help with a handful of key things (missile defense, Iran negotiations, Syria peace talks, and agreeing to rules governing cyberwarfare), the aim would be to list ending the NATO-Russia Council as an option -- but with the unstated intention of not actually following through. As NATO's Deputy Secretary-General Alexander Vershbow has been arguing, Russia has begun treating the United States and the alliance as an adversary. This is why we need to go beyond suspension and dangle complete cessation, even if for the time being we don't plan to make good on this threat.

Regarding NATO's troop placement, however, the United States needs to use this as the major means of reassuring our allies. It would be a good idea to bring the level of U.S. troops in Eastern Europe up to 1,000 from the temporary placement of 600 paratroopers (this could include 100 to 150 "soft forces," such as trainers). Washington also needs to do its best to get the Western Europeans to add to this total. To entice the Europeans to match the U.S. commitment, Washington should propose not permanent placement but a perpetual rotational arrangement. This way, the reddish line of permanent placement would not be crossed, but NATO would nonetheless achieve upgraded deterrence capability, while mollifying Poland and the Baltics.

Eastern European nations such as Poland are likely to welcome and add to increased capabilities commitments; Western Europeans nations, however, are far more hesitant. Direct lethal aid and a regularized rotational U.S.-Europe troop placement will go most of the way toward re-establishing conventional deterrence against Moscow. But to go all the way, Western allies also need to conduct a yearly exercise in Poland (and make announcements that in future years this new major exercise will be taking place in the Baltic states). This should be a major ground-air exercise of the NATO Response Force (NRF), with a military plan for defending an invasion from the east.

Regarding military capabilities, the United States should endorse both the German proposal to organize clusters of allies that would increase their military capabilities and Britain's proposal that would align Western allies to spearhead NATO military operations beyond what the current NRF plans call for. It is worth remembering that crude measures like the level of overall defense spending are far less important than the current state of military capabilities, which lately have been enhanced even by Western allies that have reduced their defense spending (e.g. France, Britain, and Germany). Furthermore, the alliance ought to augment its operational air force capabilities to be able to conduct 30-day air operations like the one carried out in Libya in 2011 (with the necessary fighter aircraft, flight crews, refueling aircraft, drones, and satellite surveillance). NATO needs to be thinking of capabilities in the full spectrum of land, naval, air, and cyber-power, and air capability is the biggest gap.

Indeed, the time has come for the West to take an even stronger stand against Russian aggression and force Putin to back down and end this crisis. The West should proceed with a fuller slate of toughened sanctions, targeting all major sectors of the Russian economy -- virtually all of their products and services -- and a full-fledged embargo against transferring any arms or defense technology to Russia. Tightening the economic screws is still a major element of a successful strategy to get Russia to cease and desist. But this is not enough.

The Russian president needs to be deterred from annexing other contested territories, like Transnistria, and reinforcing his ugly new international relations norm by deeply interfering in the internal affairs of other national states, such as the Baltics. This will require a series of additional and stronger military moves on the European chessboard. Let Crimea be the apogee of revanchist Russian aggrandizement. It is time for global security and international law to push back strongly against bellicose Russian dictates.

KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV / AFP

Argument

The Pinprick President

Barack Obama needs to go to war with the Islamic State, or it will go to war with America.

Make no mistake, this is no pinprick. President Barack Obama's decision on Aug. 7 to authorize force in Iraq is a watershed moment for this administration. Or, rather, it should be. That's not to say it's a moment or a mission the president particularly enjoys. Indeed, his reluctance to engage was palpable from the first minutes of his speech, when he made his position clear: "As commander in chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into another war in Iraq."

Well, another American war in Iraq is exactly what is going to happen, sooner or later. The president has already slowed the Islamic State's (IS) momentum with his strikes near Erbil, but it is not clear if this is a one-time response or the beginning of a campaign to first contain, then destroy the jihadist force. The sooner we begin such a campaign, the less complicated our involvement will be, the greater our chances of success, and the more likely IS's forces can be defeated before they tear apart the region completely -- and directly threaten America. 

The stakes in the struggle with IS are clear. As the president himself said in June, if the Islamic State is allowed a permanent foothold in the center of the Middle East, core American interests are at risk: protecting the region and ultimately America and the West from another wave of 9/11-like terror; keeping oil shipments flowing from the Persian Gulf; and protecting our allies and friends increasingly threatened by the jihadist advance -- the Iraqi government and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), Turkey, Jordan, Gulf allies, and Israel.

President Obama's strategy has three core elements: 1) counterterrorism, and specifically augmenting our campaign against al Qaeda to focus more on the Islamic State; 2) U.S. military actions to strike IS when its military crosses U.S. "red lines" -- which so far have been limited, officially, to specific humanitarian catastrophes or endangered American personnel, or possibly key infrastructure; and 3) the broader campaign to provide limited military and intelligence support both to a more inclusive Iraqi government that can undermine IS's appeal to Sunni Arabs and to the moderate Syrian resistance.

What President Obama has gotten right so far is the third element. The political transition now underway in Iraq is the anchor for any broader campaign to eradicate IS. The radical jihadists' rapid advance would not have been possible without support from a disaffected and often abused Iraqi Sunni Arab population; clearing IS out of those Sunni Arab areas will require a sophisticated counterinsurgency campaign as effective as the U.S. military's in 2007 to 2008, but without large numbers of U.S. troops on the ground. The nomination of a Haider al-Abadi, a moderate Shiite politician, as prime minister-designate, and Nouri al-Maliki's resignation, are an important steps forward, and ones facilitated by the Obama administration.

But there are two problems with this strategy. Given Obama's ambivalent views on the efficacy of military force, and America's tortured history in Iraq, he downplays his strategy's second element: direct U.S. military actions. Despite the president's oft-stated belief that there is never any military solution to, well, almost anything, IS's advances into Kurdish and Shiite Arab areas of Iraq are not a political or social phenomenon but a military achievement. And one cannot confront a classic military strategy with diplomatic niceties.

The Islamic State's shocking success is a result of good tactics: To avoid major conflicts on all fronts, it seeks to neutralize one foe after another -- overrunning Syrian Army divisional and brigade bases a few weeks ago, then turning to the Kurdish forces in the north. The next target may be a major push to isolate Baghdad. (The resulting mayhem of which would be intentional, provoking Shiite militias and Iran, with the aim of triggering a wider Sunni-Shiite conflagration.) 

With each military success, IS becomes stronger, gains more territory and strategic resources (weapons stocks, dams, electrical generation capacity, oil fields, refineries, and transportation nodes are particularly targeted), and wins more adherents. Meanwhile, its opponents -- the "local boots on the ground" that President Obama has made clear are responsible for fighting and winning this war alone -- grow weaker and more demoralized. Thus the importance of airstrikes to stop IS advances and facilitate U.S. and allied countries' arming of the Peshmerga.

Air power has real limitations when applied in a counterinsurgency. But it can dramatically change the odds in favor of besieged allies on the ground when applied against an enemy like the Islamic State, which is advancing in motorized columns in open areas, without the protection or shelter afforded by a friendly population. We have seen air power succeed under similar circumstances in Libya in 2011, northern Iraq in 2003 and 1991, Kosovo in 1999, Bosnia in 1995, and even in Vietnam in 1972. 

But using this tool would require the president to broaden the rationale for bombing missions beyond simply protecting Americans or saving the beleaguered Yazidis in Sinjar. Indeed, to move the needle from a pinprick to something of lasting strategic value, the president must overcome his aversion to using force and realize that, to paraphrase his West Point speech this spring, some problems actually are nails that America's military can and should hammer.

The second problem with his strategy concerns the longer-term third element. Given that U.S. policy is to deny IS a foothold in the region, the Iraqi political morass must be improved enough to enable an effective counterinsurgency strategy. Maliki's resignation and Abadi's nomination are important first steps towards an effective, inclusive government that can win over Kurds and Sunni Arabs, and motivate a frustrated army. But, given the vagaries of Iraqi politics, these positive steps are only a beginning. 

Furthermore, there is IS's strength to contend with. This begins with its military prowess and ruthless rule over its conquered populations, but also includes its ideology -- specifically, its unique (even by al Qaeda standards) focus on a war to the death between Sunni and Shiite Islam. While President Obama's emphasis on regional diplomatic efforts to complement any counterinsurgency is on target, IS's appeal -- if not to Sunni governments, then to Sunni populations -- is a complicating factor.

In the case of small-scale, relatively isolated terrorist movements like that in the Philippines, any failure of local allies in combating them becomes something we regret but can live with, as the direct effect on U.S. vital interests is minimal. But given IS's clearly elucidated threat to America and its growing quasi-state presence, living with that problem is not acceptable. The United States cannot simply sit back and wait for Iraq to solve its political problems. The administration must coordinate rapidly and effectively with any and all potential allies in the struggle against IS, including arming and training the Peshmerga, Sunni tribes, moderate Syrian insurgents, and the Iraqi Army, by providing both intelligence and air power.

But it is not clear from either his announcements or actions whether President Obama is ready to expand his strategy to include much more robust military action against the Islamic State, or to truly partner with those willing to do the fighting on the ground against it. Apart from his own innate reluctance to use military force, his supporters cite an increasingly isolationist U.S. public opinion. The American people indeed are leery of new commitments, but their reluctance has largely been generated by bloody, inconclusive major land combat with murky goals in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The current intervention against the Islamic State is not what is being contemplated here, but rather air operations similar to those taken in the campaigns cited above, such as Kosovo and Bosnia, along with much stronger diplomatic, political, logistical, and advisory efforts.

Do military actions of this sort open the door to a "slippery slope" that could lead to new Iraqs and Vietnams? In theory, yes. But Barack Obama is the least likely president to make a mistake of this sort. Moreover, the reality doesn't equal the fear: Over scores of deployments and combat operations since 1945, the United States has rarely headed down the slippery slope. And let's be clear: The Iraq adventure under President George W. Bush was not a slippery slope but an intentional regime-change strategy gone wrong.

What the president thus must do is to convince first himself and then the American people that our key interests -- oil supply, protecting the homeland and allies from terrorism -- are at stake so long as the Islamic State is rampant. Americans need to understand that if the United States does not stop them, no one will.

The Obama administration just in the past few months has routinely conducted military operations against al Qaeda affiliates in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya -- without incurring the anger of the American public. Why should it not be equally aggressive against the most dangerous of these al Qaeda-inspired groups? If the president's answer is still that Job No. 1 is to avoid more Iraq debacles, then we will have much to answer for, not only today to the innocent people terrorized by the Islamic State, but tomorrow to Americans who will surely be terrorized by these jihadists if we do not stop them now.

Pool / Pool