Lt. James Schmitt, USAF
Defense guest columnist
If there's one lesson to be learned in the
Russian invasion of Crimea, it is that hard power acts faster than soft power.
The international outrage against Russia for its actions traveled at a fraction
of the pace of the Russian troops moving out of their bases in the region.
Consequences for the action will follow "in days, not weeks," according
to unnamed U.S. officials, but the entire Russian takeover of the peninsula took
less than a day. The slow reaction of the international community in Ukraine
follows an ineffectual reaction from the international community in a much more
deadly Syrian conflict. International inaction was likely part of Vladimir Putin's decision-making
calculus when he was planning, allegedly for weeks, Russia's advance.
In fact, for Russia, the conflicts in Syria and
Ukraine bear striking similarities. In both cases, Russia is acting to protect
a strategically-important warm water port, at Tartous in Syria and at
Sevastopol in Ukraine. In both cases, the standing governments were supportive
of Russian interests, even if not perfectly so, but faced popular uprisings
with the open backing of Western powers. Finally, in both cases, the catalyst
for action was exactly what Russia is determined to avoid within its own
borders: mass uprisings by groups that feel politically underrepresented. These
three similarities touch on central interests of the Russian state: power
projection, international alliances, and domestic stability. In this light, the
benefits of previously unthinkable Russian intervention in Ukraine become more
Meanwhile, the United States and its allies
seek opposite goals on all three fronts in order to protect -- or produce -- security
in Europe, peace in the Levant, and human rights within Russian borders.
Ukraine, however, is no place to make a stand against an aggressive Russian
The reason lies in the differences that are
plainly obvious to Western powers. First and most importantly, the humanitarian
crisis that Syria represents dwarfs the violence in Ukraine. While there have
been close to
deaths in Ukraine, the number in Syria now likely
On the most basic humanitarian level, there is more to be gained with an end to
the Bashar al-Assad government in Syria than to be gained with Ukrainian
control over Crimea. More cynically, the United States benefits more from a new
ally in the Middle East than from supporting an old and only sometimes-friendly
nation in Eastern Europe. Removing Assad would deprive Iran of a key ally and
transit point for arms to Hezbollah, would help stabilize a rapidly
deteriorating situation in neighboring Iraq, and would calm Israel's nerves at
the start of a new
push for peace talks.
In Eastern Europe, on the other hand, the United States and NATO may have
already overextended themselves with their standing commitments. Taking on more
responsibility in the region could destabilize regions that rely on NATO's
finite attention, such as Afghanistan. Finally, there are more means for the
United States to help the Syrian opposition than to help in Ukraine; financial
assistance for the Ukrainian government and punitive sanctions against Russia
are unlikely to significantly rebalance the conflict. In Syria, large increases
in weapons shipments to the Free Syrian Army, looser restrictions on the
recipients of aid, and cruise missile strikes designed to encourage the
government to accelerate suspiciously slow chemical weapons deliveries all have
the potential to make major differences in the opposition's favor.
The benefit of a Syrian response to Russia's
Ukrainian aggression is that it uses both parties' assumptions. The Russians,
who perceive the conflicts to be similar, will likely (and correctly) take the
increased intervention as a countermove. In future cost-benefit analyses, they
will now have to consider not just theater ramifications, but immediate
international ramifications. This return to a mindset more similar to the Cold
War, when conflicts in Cuba could be partially resolved by drawbacks in Turkey,
may lead to a more stable and conservative Russia in the future, which would be
a benefit to uneasy neighbors such as Georgia.
For the West, the low point of Russian
legitimacy in the international arena provides a unique opportunity to seize
the initiative in Syria for the first time since the Russian-crafted chemical
weapons deal that left John Kerry agreeing to what he once considered an
offhand joke. More importantly, an ebb in Russian soft power could allow the
United States to help solve a humanitarian crisis that continues to claim the
lives of hundreds each week.
The takeway: The United States does not face a
dichotomy between doing nothing and an impossible military reaction against
Russia; instead, it can seize a major opportunity to save thousands of lives.
James Schmitt is a pilot in the U.S. Air
Force and a graduate of American University. The views expressed here are his