Round 1 to Russia.
Crimea fell with barely a shot (although there has been a reported death of a Ukrainian soldier by gunfire).
While it seems all eyes are focused on eastern Ukraine, the true prize is in the southwest of the country.
The seaport of Odessa lies to the west of Crimea. While Ukraine could recover from the loss of Crimea, losing Odessa would be a disaster. What’s more, the city is highly vulnerable to an invasion from the sea. It is a short hop for the Russian Black Sea fleet from its base on the peninsula. Although Odessa does not have the depth of pro-Russian sentiment Crimea has, there is enough of a base to foster infiltration of operatives loyal to Putin – and there are probably many already in place – to grease the skids for a naval and air incursion by Russian forces.
If that were to occur, Ukraine would lose its only seaborne trade route.
More importantly, Ukraine would lose access to alternative suppliers of gas. Wouldn’t Russia just love that.
An LNG facility in the vicinity of Odessa would open up opportunities for gas exports to the EU countries. One was to be constructed, but the financing fell apart.
EU financing of an LNG station could be a win-win deal for most of Europe and Ukraine. In the long-run, it would lower prices, remove a trump card from Putin’s hand and provide Ukraine with much-needed revenue.
Retired US general Wesley Clark, a former Supreme Commander of NATO forces and one-time Democratic presidential candidate, is on record as supporting the placement of NATO observers on the ground in Ukraine. I would envision having them embedded with Ukrainian forces. The observers would be vital eyes and ears and would provide reliable early warning of Russian moves. Clark is also in favor of more support for the Ukrainian military.
Russian-friendly cities in the eastern part of Ukraine will be vulnerable for takeover for years to come. So what’s the rush as far as Putin is concerned? However, the logistics to support a takeover of Odessa are more complex and expensive even considering the nearby presence of the Russian Navy…..and time is of the essence.
The window of opportunity for Russia to pull it off will narrow as the United States and NATO get their act together. Think of Boardwalk and Park Place in Monopoly. Russia just acquired Boardwalk; picking up Park Place will greatly enhance its yield. Eastern Ukraine is Marvin Gardens by comparison.
I am having doubts about President Obama’s resolve to take meaningful counter-measures. Sanctions and sending a squadron of aircraft to Poland are token steps. Putin knows that and will not be deterred. He has already outplayed Obama over Syria and called his “red line” bluff.
Vice President Biden’s visit to Poland offered little solace. Joe’s head was tilted down as he read directly from notes. He was as inspiring as a high school student ill-prepared to deliver a speech in front of a class.
President Obama should be less concerned about his NCAA bracket picks and focus more on publicizing the threat Putin’s moves have on world stability.
There is one credible response in play, but it needs an infusion of muscle – and soon.
The USS Truxton is on station in the Black Sea as part of maneuvers with the Romanian and Bulgarian navies. The exercise is a one-day affair. The president should extend it indefinitely. It will require rotating US ships since there is a 21-day limit on visits by warships to the Black Sea from nations outside of the region.
No less than two US ships should be present at any time. Combined with vessels from Bulgaria and Romania, the small flotilla could serve as a satisfactory tripwire to deter a Russian naval move on Odessa. Our ships should cruise as closely as possible to Odessa with the blessings of the government in Kiev, of course. If supported by land-based NATO aircraft in Romania, a relatively short distance away, the credibility increases.
If we wait for Russia to blockade Odessa, then forget about it. Too little, too late, but that seems to be the motto of the White House these days.
In addition, the United States absolutely needs to be in talks with Turkey, but I do not see any of Obama’s team in action with anyone from the Asia Minor peninsula.
Turkey is the gatekeeper between the Mediterranean and the Black Seas. Although the Turkish government has its share of disagreements with the United States over foreign policy, the fact remains that the country depends more on trade with the West than Russia, and it depends on the United States for significant military technology and weapons systems.
During the Cold War, Turkey maintained much closer ties with the United States. A reemerging Russian empire could give Ankara pause and warm the relations between the two, sometimes fractious, NATO members. Russia’s belligerence could dampen trade flowing through the Straits of Bosporus – that translates to a decrease in ancillary revenue Turkey earns from transiting ships. LNG shipments to Ukraine would pass free of charge.
Under The Treaty of Montreux , Turkey has the discretion to close or restrict access through the Straits. That would be a powerful card to play against Putin. I would not suggest a total shutdown, but any slowdown of Russian traffic would make it difficult for Russia to support its Mediterranean fleet, vital to its influence in the Middle East.
Any negotiations between the United States and Turkey regarding the Straits and its use during a conflict would be complex and require wrangling that would last years. But let’s face it, we are in for a long-term period of icy relations with Russia. The sooner we start talking turkey with Turkey, the better.
Dealing with the Ukrainian crisis is a multi-front exercise – diplomatic, military and economic – requiring timely coordination.
The Obama Administration’s response has been sluggish and uninspiring – not the characteristics upon which to build an effective coalition among our allies.
Whether we like it or not, the United States is the only nation capable of consolidating the resources needed to oppose a tyrant.