Here at the University of Texas the other day, Jeremi Suri offered a challenge to envision what military intervention in the Crimea would look like. A really compelling essay, he suggested, could merit an editorial spot in the New York Times. Our Mack Brown Distinguished Professor for Global Leadership, History, and Public Policy is of course no stranger to aggressive thinking in the Times. His argument there last April to “Bomb North Korea, Before It’s Too Late” attracted a great deal of attention, and not wholly in a good way.
But frankly, fighting a nuclear-armed Russia along its borders might be an idea rather more unhinged. So it’s worth noting that thus far, no one has fired more than a warning shot. We might then ask whether more measured action would be more appropriate. And fortunately, there are levels of pressure available before fingering the trigger.
The first is to recognize that Ukrainian forces haven’t been ejected from Crimea; they’ve just been surrounded there. Damon Wilson of the Atlantic Council (where I’m a non-resident senior fellow) noted today from Kyiv via Twitter that the home team still controls 22 facilities across the peninsula, including 16 military bases. "Rather than give up,” he asks, "why not focus on sustaining them?”
Immediate action may be needed, for facts on the ground remain unclear. While some surrounded Ukrainian units may be in adequate supply for now, a few already have been badgered into surrendering. Quick resupply from the air, where practicable, could rally the army for a prolonged standoff. Months may be necessary for diplomatic and economic pressure to have an effect, and possibly roll back the Russian move into a negotiated settlement.
In this way, the Russian presence could be treated not as an invasion, but as a blockade, worthy of another Berlin Airlift. Would the Russians shoot at allied aircraft airdropping supplies onto Ukrainian bases? Choosing to fight would be an audacious and immediate escalation, with consequences akin to those of 1948. The sight of Hercules and Globemaster transports overflying Crimea unmolested could be as inspiring today in Ukraine as it was back then in Germany. The addition of just a few gigantic Antonovs from the Ukrainian Air Force would build enthusiasm for the alliance, and for rebuilding Ukrainian defenses.
This would be dangerous work. It could drag on, as the business over Berlin did for a year. But it’s a firm and judicious response to an outrageous land grab.