Two Things the U.S. Should Not Do in Ukraine
Any discussion of U.S. tactics has to start with the realization that Russia holds most of the meaningful cards in the short term. The U.S. and Europe are not going to reverse the facts on the ground militarily. If the Russian military wants to move into eastern Ukraine, will European militaries really mobilize to stop them? Will NATO? It seems highly unlikely. If Russia wishes to completely annex Crimea (which, arguably, they already have) are foreign troops going to march in and unseat them? No.
This does not mean the U.S. is completely helpless over the medium and long term. In fact, if cooler heads prevail, there is a good chance the U.S. can put in place a series of policies that will raise the costs to Russia without risking a catastrophic confrontation. That said, there are still some things it shouldn't do:
1. Extend NATO membership to Ukraine or Georgia. Loathe as I am to disagree with Alex, extending NATO membership to Ukraine now or in the future is a non-starter for several very good reasons. The U.S. will not (and should not) sacrifice its soldiers let alone risk a nuclear war for Ukrainian sovereignty and self-determination. Moreover, Ukrainians themselves are ambivalent at best about NATO membership. A late 2009 Pew survey found 51 percent of the country opposed to NATO membership vs. just 21 percent in support. A Gallup poll around the same time found that Ukrainians were far more likely to view the defensive alliance as a threat than a source of protection. Events may have scrambled these views, but given Ukraine's sizable pro-Russian population it's difficult to see how NATO membership will ever be overwhelmingly popular in the country.
It's worth remembering too, as the Carnegie Endowment's Dmitri Trenin wrote on Sunday, that it was a path to NATO membership that "materially contributed" to Russia's invasion of Georgia in 2008. Expanding NATO further into post-Soviet space is a red line with Russia and the U.S. is frankly not in a position to challenge it without running a huge risk. Put bluntly, Russia will be able to invade eastern Ukraine faster than the West could admit Ukraine into NATO to deter Russian aggression and making vague promises about NATO membership to Ukraine may actually provoke Russia to move beyond Crimea and expose Western bluffs.
2. Seek to counter Russia in Syria. Just because Bashar Assad is a Russian client doesn't mean the U.S. gains anything meaningful vis-a-vis Ukraine from his overthrow. Creating a jihadist-ridden failed state in Syria is a bad idea that endangers U.S. interests far more than the loss of Assad harms Russia.
If the U.S. can take these two bad ideas off the table, there are a few things it could do to weaken Putin's grip over the medium and long term.
1. Ship liquified natural gas to Europe. Europe depends on Russia for about a quarter of its natural gas imports (the majority of which transit through Ukraine). Fortunately, the U.S. is now awash in the stuff and could, with time and investment, export it in liquified form to Europe. For Europe, buying gas from the U.S. is way to diminish Russian influence without a direct confrontation. It would also marginalize Ukraine's geopolitical status which will serve, over the long term, to lower the stakes for Europe, Russia and the U.S.
2. Lend Ukraine money. Before Russian troops rolled into Crimea, Europe was only willing to cough up financial assistance to Ukraine after a series of reforms were implemented. Now, the IMF is in talks with the country on a financial rescue package (although these are likely to come with strings attached as well). With Russia canceling Ukraine's discounted gas prices and money pouring out of the country, Ukraine is on the brink of an economic crisis. Fortunately, throwing money into corrupt and destabilized countries is something Washington has plenty of experience with and in the case of Ukraine, there is a reasonable chance of seeing some "return" on this investment -- in the form of keeping Western Ukraine geopolitically anchored to the West. At a minimum, using financial incentives is a lower-cost method of retaining influence in Ukraine than extending NATO membership.
At the end of the day, the U.S. and Europe need to answer a difficult question: why they want Ukraine more than Russia does.