Editorial cartoon on Crimea, Putin and Obama

Some Silver Lining in the Ukraine Crisis

Russia's provocation should lay to rest terrible ideas about American defense policy.

Editorial cartoon on Crimea, Putin and Obama
By + More

Are we on the cusp of a new Cold War? The events of the past month have put the final nail in the coffin of the ill-fated “reset” with Russia that preoccupied much of the Obama administration’s foreign policy agenda during its first years in office. Relations between Moscow and Washington are now at their lowest ebb in more than two decades thanks to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s neo-imperial efforts to subvert neighboring Ukraine. Washington and European capitals are still struggling to formulate a coherent response to the Kremlin’s aggression, but it’s already clear that the U.S. and Russia are drifting back into the old adversarial roles that defined the international system for much of the past century.

If there is a silver lining to the current crisis, however, it’s that it has effectively debunked a number of wrong-headed ideas about American defense policy that had proliferated in recent years within the Washington Beltway.

One is the prospect of “global zero.” That rosy vision of nuclear disarmament posits that the U.S. should voluntarily draw down its own strategic arsenal and that if America leads by example, everyone else will invariably follow suit. “Global zero” has been promoted by an array of elder statesmen for years, and became a centerpiece of President Obama’s national security agenda, where it drove arms control efforts with Russia and unilateral strategic reductions at home. The idea, moreover, has remained remarkably resilient, even though empirical evidence suggests strongly that it is exactly backward: The smaller the U.S. arsenal becomes, the more incentive countries like Russia, China, Iran and North Korea have for beefing up their own strategic capabilities as a way of challenging the United States.

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on the Ukraine-Crimea crisis.]

Until now. Russia's re-emergence as a serious, and imminent, security threat to Europe is rapidly making obsolete the once-fashionable idea that America can simply shelve its nuclear arms. That’s good news for American security, which has long been predicated on nuclear primacy, and for U.S. allies abroad, who rely on a robust U.S. nuclear umbrella to retain stability in their respective regions of the world.

The second fallacy falling by the wayside is the notion that the United States can do without missile defense. Upon coming into office, the Obama administration conducted a significant overhaul of its predecessor’s efforts to protect the U.S. and its allies from ballistic missile attack. In lieu of the Bush-era “spiral development” approach, the Obama White House proposed a four tier plan that effectively prioritized defense of our allies over protection of the American homeland. In the end, however, it didn’t even accomplish that much; last year, citing budgetary concerns (and in no small measure in order to appease Moscow), the Obama administration walked away from the idea that the U.S. would play a decisive role in guarding Europe from hostile missiles. 

Now, however, Russian hostility has refocused attention on what it will actually take to protect the U.S. and provide serious defense assurances to our vulnerable allies in Central and Eastern Europe. Missile defense is a large part of that answer, which is why policymakers in Washington are increasingly gravitating to the notion that a robust capability to neutralize Russian (and other) missiles is, in fact, still needed.

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on Vladimir Putin and Russia.]

Perhaps most significantly, our current standoff with Russia should serve as a wake-up call about the need for a robust defense capability — and for allocating the dollars and cents necessary to maintain it. The past half-decade has seen the U.S. defense budget fall victim to the budgetary axe, with countless valuable programs slashed more than is necessary or advisable in the name of fiscal austerity and “sequester.” Indeed, the Pentagon’s fiscal year 2015 budget, unveiled last month by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, will cut U.S. military spending, as a percentage of GDP, to pre-World War II levels, invariably taking a real toll on both the size and the shape of our military capabilities in the process.

Today, those capabilities are needed more than ever. Russia’s incursion into Ukraine has fanned fears among countries in Eastern Europe and the Baltics that they could soon find themselves in Moscow’s crosshairs as well. Poland, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia all are now agitating for closer defense ties with the United States and for stepped-up military cooperation as a hedge against potential Russian aggression. Having the ability to respond to these requests credibly is central to America’s standing on the world stage.

The Obama administration is now talking tough about what it is prepared to do in order to confront and deter Russia. But Moscow will only understand that the White House truly means what it says when it sees Washington make real, meaningful changes to its defense spending and strategic outlook. Thanks to Putin’s provocative moves, those changes might come about sooner rather than later.