Just how the United States should respond to the looming Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine has absorbed Washington for the last week. Already the White House has halted preparations for the G-8 summit in Sochi, delayed any new meetings with Russian officials over further trade increases between the two countries, and put into place the framework for economic and travel sanctions against both Russians and Ukrainians who are seeking to destabilize the eastern European country. Those strong steps have left members of Congress and media pundits alike scrambling to come up with some form of response other than what the Obama administration is already currently doing. Here’s five of the least helpful proposals that have emerged in the process:
1. Withdrawing from the New START treaty.
Leading conservatives have never been happy with the Obama administration for negotiating an updated version of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) at the beginning of his term. Despite criticisms from the right, the New START cleared the two-thirds hurdle necessary to pass the Senate and put into place reductions in American and Russian nuclear arsenals to 1,550 nuclear warheads each and 700 deployed nuclear-capable ICBMs, submarines, and bombers.
Now that Russia has moved military forces into Ukraine, those same conservatives are taking the opportunity to call for pulling out of the treaty that they say has always been in Russia’s favor. “Instead of recognizing the United States’ worldwide alliances and concomitant military needs, the Obama administration tied American nuclear-force levels to those of Russia, which was cutting its arsenal anyway to save money,” former Bush administration lawyer John Yoo wrote in the National Review as a reason to do away with the treaty — without suggesting anything that the United States would get in return except for the ability to produce even more nuclear warheads that would not have prevented Russia from moving into Crimea. That’s on top of the fact that the U.S. pulling out of New START would give Russia moral cover for doing the same, something that they themselves have threatened not just in response to the West’s response to their incursion but as far back as 2011.
2. Stripping Russia of its U.N. Security Council veto.
Russia’s ability to veto any proposal before the United Nations Security Council is one of the last remnants of its superpower status — one that conservatives have suggested needs to go in response to the Ukraine crisis. “The U.N. should remove Russia as a permanent member of the Security Council,” RealClearWorld columnist Alex Bezerow put forward as part of the menu of options before the United States. “The United States could seek to strip Russia of its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, where it can veto any U.N. authorization for the use of force other than for national self-defense,” Yoo also says could be a potential punishment for Moscow.
This won’t happen. The veto power is currently written into the United Nations Charter as a prerogative of the permanent five members of the Council — Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom, and United States — and their ratification is required for any amendment to the Charter. Given the high unlikelihood that Moscow would tell its representative at the U.N. to vote for a measure that would strip it of its veto, and then have its government ratify it, the idea something of a moot point. That, Yoo argues, is precisely the reason why the United States needs to leave the U.N. and focus on making the eternal neoconservative dream of a Council of Democracies a reality to replace it.
3. Increasing missile defense spending.
While definitely a non-military option that Obama could take to help respond to the crisis, increasing spending to missile defense programs in Eastern Europe would not be the panacea that many now seem to assume. Republicans in Congress — and former Vice President Dick Cheney — have spent the last several days calling for the reinstatement of U.S. support for missile interceptors in Poland and advanced radar in the Czech Republic. The program shifted in 2009 to move away from the land-based system towards one centered around deploying interception methods on U.S. naval ships. The change, the administration said at the time, was to make the system more responsive to possible missile threats from Iran and helped secure Russian cooperation in coordinating a joint response to Iran’s nuclear program.
Moving back to the original plan would definitely serve as a direct signal to Russia that it is, in fact, the true aim of the missile defense shield, but experts have said that the modified missile defense plan is no less of a threat to Russia than the previous and shifting back to the original plan won’t cause Russia to abandon their positions in Crimea. “This is part of [the Republican] way – missile defense is the solution to every problem so you should be a little careful not to read too much into this because there’s a bigger debate that’s going to unfold abut what the most cost efficient way is to reassure allies right now,” one former Clinton White House official said to CBS by way of an explanation of the push. “The fact that this is the first one out the gate may be more representative of how important missile defense is to Republican Party ideology than it is to U.S. defense planning and needs.”
4. Boosting natural gas exports.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) over the weekend joined other lawmakers in advocating for drilling “in every possible conceivable place” to increase the U.S.’ natural gas output and really stick it to Russia. The issue is now a bipartisan talking point, with Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) calling for speeding up natural gas drilling permits, because the Ukraine crisis “shows why we need to responsibly develop our natural gas reserves and expand our ability to export this resource abroad.”
While in the long-term the U.S. may wind up being able to produce enough natural gas to undercut Russia — which has the world’s largest proven reserves — in the short-run even the most ambitious boosts in production will prove unable to affect the current standoff. For one, as the Washington Post’s WonkBlog points out, the companies who apply for permits typically have customers already lined up. Also, as the Council on Foreign Relations’ Michael Levi notes “decisions about whom to export to and import from are made by commercial entities, not by governments,” and at the moment its more profitable to ship natural gas to Asia where the demand and the prices are higher.
5. Fast-tracking Georgia’s membership into NATO.
The idea of adding Ukraine itself into the NATO defense alliance appears to be off the table for now, as interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk dismissed the notion as out of hand last week. Not to be thwarted, however, that hasn’t stopped calls for instead accelerating Georgia’s membership instead. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AK) together penned an op-ed listing the options for American response, which included providing the Caucasus nation with “a defensive arms package that would include anti-aircraft and anti-tank capabilities” and providing them with the Membership Action Plan (MAP) they’ve long wanted.
The problem with that comes in what happened last time Georgia was in consideration for joining the defense alliance in 2008, when Russia memorably rolled tanks into Georgia while Europe and the United States stood idle. Though it’s possible Putin wouldn’t have risked invading had Georgia been a member, given the chaos that would have erupted in the NATO system had the members chosen not to respond to Moscow, the choice to have Georgia remain outside of the alliance seemed vindicated. What makes matters more complicated for NATO today would be that it would now have a member who was currently engaged in a territorial dispute with Russia over the breakaway provinces Abkhazia and South Ossetia — Georgia insists they’re still part of their territory while Russia has recognized their independence and is propping up their economies. Also, NATO operates on consensus of all 25 members to act, leaving open the possibility that an aggrieved Georgia could act against the rest of the group’s interests on Russia-NATO matters. And while the blatantly anti-Russian government of former Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili has been replaced with one less belligerent, given Russia’s vehement rejection of the idea of adding Georgia to NATO, doing so would likely find the alliance facing an even greater chance of armed conflict with Russia without much gained in terms of a military ally.