Mitt Romney is No Captain Hindsight on Ukraine

by Benjamin Studebaker

Since I last wrote about Ukraine, the Russians have occupied and annexed Crimea, a region that has a 70% majority ethnic Russian population and a major Russian naval base. The United States and the European Union have done even less than I anticipated in response–sanctions have been confined to a few figures in Putin’s administration. At this point, the armchair generals are beginning to come out of the woodwork, with Mitt Romney going so far as to tell us what he believes he would have done had he been elected in 2012. Unfortunately, Romney is no Captain Hindsight, and his proposals only serve to illustrate what a poor choice the American people had in 2012.


Here’s what Romney says he would have done:

Unfortunately, not having anticipated Russia’s intentions, the president wasn’t able to shape the kinds of events that may have been able to prevent the kinds of circumstances that you’re seeing in the Ukraine, as well as the things that you’re seeing in Syria…

This is not Fantasyland, this is reality where they are a geopolitical adversary…

Had we, from the very beginning of the demonstrations in Ukraine, had we worked with our allies and said, ‘Look, let’s talk about the kinds of severe sanctions we would put in place if Russia were to decide to move,’ and had we then communicated that to Russia beforehand, not put in place the sanctions but communicate, ‘Look, Russia, stand down here. Don’t you think about grabbing territory or these are the things that will have to happen. These are the actions we will take.’

Romney is making the following argument:

  1. Unlike Barack Obama, Romney believed that Russia was “geopolitical adversary”.
  2. Geopolitical adversaries can be expected to do things similar to what Russia has done in Crimea.
  3. Therefore, Romney would have anticipated Russia’s actions.
  4. A credible threat of severe sanctions would have deterred Russia from intervening in Ukraine.
  5. Therefore, Romney would have been able to credibly threaten severe sanctions against Russia in tandem with America’s allies before Russia intervened.
  6. Therefore, Russia would have been deterred and Crimea would not have been annexed.

It’s as if Captain Hindsight said:

I have two big problems with this:

  1. It is not at all clear that a credible threat of severe US/EU sanctions would have deterred Russian intervention given the motivations Russia has for intervening in Ukraine.
  2. It is not at all clear that a President Romney would have been able to credibly threaten severe US/EU sanctions even if the above objection fails.

Let’s consider each in turn.

Even Supposing Romney Could Credibly Threaten Severe Sanctions, Russia Would Not Be Deterred

As regular readers may recall from my various assorted past writing on this subject, Ukraine is a core strategic interest for Russia.  Russia needs a friendly government in Ukraine for several reasons:

  1. To prevent NATO/EU expansion.
  2. To sustainably maintain its access to the naval base in Sevastopol.
  3. To protect the interests of Russian ethnics living in Ukraine as well as Russian language-speakers.

Russia most frequently makes explicit public appeal to #3, but #1 is truly of the most importance. By annexing Crimea, Russia protects the 70% ethnic Russian population in Crimea from reprisals, both real and imagined, it secures the naval base in Sevastopol indefinitely, and it puts additional pressure on Ukraine to stay out of NATO and the EU.

#1 is important to Russia for the same reason that the US got very nervous about the installment of Soviet military bases and missiles in Cuba–when the troops of a foreign great power are deployed so close to one’s border, there is always going to be a worry that sometime in the future that great power’s intentions may change and those bases might be used against oneself. The more countries Russia has as a buffer between itself and NATO, the more breathing space it has from NATO’s tanks. Russia recognizes that the EU serves the economic interests of core western European powers like Germany and consequently would prefer to have the states on its border in a Eurasian Union that serves its own economic interests first and foremost. When an Eastern European state joins the EU, Russia loses the opportunity to integrate it into an economic system more to its liking.

NATO has expanded considerably in recent years, spooking Russia militarily:

Similarly, the EU has also been growing Eastward:

If NATO and the EU continue to grow Eastward, Russia worries that it will become militarily and economically isolated and vulnerable in Europe. In the meantime, China’s power and influence grows in Asia, threatening Russia on its Asian flank.  Since the Sino-Soviet split, the Russians have been mistrustful of the Chinese. This gives the Russians the sense that they are slowly being cornered and squeezed, and it makes them increasingly desperate. This desperation makes them quite resistant to sanctions–if Russia loses additional countries that might have been part of the Eurasian Union to the EU and if NATO forces move closer to its border, Russia may stand to lose much more strategically in the long-term than the sanctions can inflict in the short-term.  Countries have withstood severe sanctions over less–South Africa endured several years of near-universal international sanctions just to maintain the racist, economically destructive policy of apartheid during the 1980’s.

Even Supposing a Credible Threat of Severe Sanctions Would Deter Russia, Romney  Couldn’t Offer Them

Let’s say the reader doesn’t buy the previous argument and thinks Russia doesn’t value its long-term security and economic influence nearly so much as I think it does. In that case, Romney would still need to have been able to deliver a credible threat of severe sanctions.

When thinking about this, we first need to get a conception of what “severe sanctions” entail. Two things in particular are necessary for sanctions to qualify as “severe”:

  1. The EU must participate in the sanctions.
  2. The sanctions must target the whole of the Russian economy, not merely select individuals.

The United States could flat-out embargo Russia, but the United States does not have enough pull in the Russian economy to cause severe trouble on its own. The European economies are much more deeply entwined with Russia’s, and these countries would need to commit to any sanction plan for it to qualify as “severe”.

Severe sanctions work by generating opposition in a country to the government by imposing intense misery and suffering on the population. Consequently, in order for sanctions to really be “severe”, they need to target the Russian economy as a whole, not merely select officials or even the oligarchs (the Russian government could easily compensate and take care of the oligarchs in the event the US and EU were to engage in asset freezes against them–they are few in number by definition and know that any government that might replace Putin’s would likely be hostile to their interests).

Unfortunately for a hypothetical President Romney, this creates a problem. The very reason Obama has only been able to offer weak sanctions is that the Europeans are not willing to commit to stronger ones. Nor is there any reason to suppose that the Europeans would have been willing to threaten severe sanctions earlier in the process, and nor is there any reason to suppose that even if the Europeans had threatened them, the Russians would have taken them seriously. This is because the European economies remain quite dependent on the Russians for natural gas–30% of Europe’s supply still comes from Russia. Russian oligarchs also often have substantive financial holdings in Europe, contributing substantively to European economies. Severe sanctions would put all of these things in jeopardy.

The Europeans might be willing to go in on severe sanctions anyway, if not for the already weak state of the European economy. Euro area GDP growth remains lethargic:

And Europe’s unemployment figures have not come down from peak:

It follows that under these conditions, Europeans would be in no mood to entertain severe sanctions when those sanctions might further damage an already pitiful growth rate and raise an already uncomfortably high unemployment rate. This would be the case no matter how early the American president suggested sanctions–indeed, if Romney had gone to the Europeans during the protests, which would have been right before winter (the period during which the European need for natural gas is greatest), his reception likely would have been poorer still.

In sum, a Mitt Romney presidency would have made no substantive difference to the outcome. Severe sanctions would not have happened, and even if they had it is likely Russia would choose to endure them because it views Ukraine as a critical strategic interest. What Romney reveals here is his own naivete, not Barack Obama’s, although his may be ample as well.