by Stephen Bryen
There is an old and rather awful joke that goes like this. The Russian Revolution has succeeded and the Communists are now in Power. Lenin is feeling very good about his great success and thinks there is a chance to convince some other countries to go Communist. He decides to go to Poland.
Meanwhile the Kremlin wants to honor the momentous occasion and commission a painting celebrating Lenin’s trip. The day arrives to unveil the painting and all of official Moscow has assembled. But alas, when the shroud over the painting is dropped there is a picture of a man in bed with a woman.
“What’s this exclaim the top Russian leaders? This,” the painter says, “is a painting of Trotsky, in bed with Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife.” And the painter explains, the title of the picture is “Lenin is in Poland.”
Today Lenin, in the form of Putin, is in the Ukraine, somewhere he surely does not belong. No one would dare to make a painting honoring the occasion.
Meanwhile the Western allies are in some turmoil. The Europeans are threatening more sanctions unless Putin pulls his forces out and wholeheartedly supports a peace effort (whatever that means). The United States is threatening to arm Ukraine with lethal weapons, as if there is some other kind of weapon useful to the Ukrainian military.
The country is in a mess. Ukraine is no match for Russia’s army, who are better trained and well equipped; there is not much chance that the Ukrainians can prevail without outside help.
Technically Ukraine is not a NATO problem because the Ukraine was never admitted to NATO membership. In fact the Ukraine’s bid for such membership was one of the contributing causes (but not the only one) to the Russian-sponsored war that is enveloping the country.
What is worse, NATO is far from having a single mind about the subject of Ukraine. Right now Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande are taking the lead as European leaders, not necessarily as NATO leaders, arguing for a cease fire and a peace process. Their chance for success is very small.
NATO itself is not what it used to be. NATO is a collective security system which was organized as the Soviet Union turned Eastern Europe into Communist puppet states under Communist Russia’s full control. The NATO idea and part of the Treaty agreement is that any attack on a NATO member can be met by collective force. But for NATO to act, all members must agree. When the United States asked NATO to join it after 9/11 to take down the Taliban, NATO could not agree. Keeping in mind that it was the same European states that pressured America into entering the war in Bosnia, NATO’s refusal to use collective defense on behalf of one of its members, in fact its most important member, was an especially rude slap in the face.
NATO also is paltry as a military operation. Many of the NATO countries reduced their armed forces after the collapse of the Soviet Union and major armor units were disbanded with land war equipment either sold or scrapped. Today NATO countries have an ability to launch a fight against the Taliban, but no ability to win the fight. That is the real reason Obama is pulling the US out of Afghanistan. The British are doing the same and most of the others are only providing humanitarian aid.
Years ago in a meeting in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee over problems in Lebanon one of the Senators asked Dr. Henry Kissinger about French insistence to have a role in the affair. Where is their Navy, opined Kissinger, or their Army? Without a military capability and willingness to commit it, Kissinger had no interest or regard for the participation of the French, even though years ago they ran Lebanon for the League of Nations under a Mandate (1923-1946).
Today we have a rather parallel situation. Neither Germany nor France will commit one single soldier to any fight in the Ukraine. So their intervention with Putin lacks credibility. Putin’s only conceivable interest compelling his attention is European sanctions, but he has cards of his own he can play if he wants (like cutting off natural gas supplies to Germany or threatening other countries such as Poland or Estonia). For this reason Europe cannot risk war, and neither can the United States, because our country, like the rest of NATO, is woefully unprepared. Had America delivered on its promises to the Ukraine years earlier, after Ukraine got rid of Backfire bombers and other strategic assets, the situation today might have been different. But it isn’t and no one knows how to change history or make hindsight into a constructive tool.
There is also the problem that the NATO partners, aside from the bombastic statements by President Obama and Vice President Biden on Ukraine, do not see eye to eye. Greece has a new leftist leader friendly to the Kremlin. Will Greece be willing to vote for more sanctions on the Russians? From the Greek point of view they already have enough sanctions laid on themselves by European bankers. Or will Italy want to get into this quagmire, with Russia an important trading nation? Or for that matter will the Germans back up Mrs. Merkel? Russia is a very important trading partner for Germany, the source of a significant flow of energy, and trades important raw materials in exchange for German manufactured goods. Merkel’s flexibility has to be extremely limited and her political future is far from assured. Loss of jobs may well trump applying sanctions.
AS a result, these are not happy times either for Europe, for the United States, and certainly for the Ukrainian people who have been treated to a tap dance by the West’s leaders in place of a functional alliance. There is only so much of this sort of thing before things turn even more tragic.
Interestingly, despite the fissures and extreme problems with NATO, all the Western players are marching around and around without getting to some core issues that must be addressed for the future. At risk today is not only NATO survival, but peace in Europe. Putin is not Hitler, notwithstanding the rhetoric that has been coming from the United Kingdom. But Putin is an aggressive minded Russian leader who is filling a vacuum. He already learned he could get away with aggression in Georgia. And now he is taking advantage because he knows NATO has mutated into a paper tiger.
We need to wake up. We don’t want Putin in Poland.