President Barack Obama has spent a lot of TV face time opining on race relations in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2009, on the George Zimmerman trial of 2012-13, on the riots in a St. Louis suburb last week, and plenty more. His attention was fixed on fundraising in Las Vegas when terrorists attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, on fundraising in New York when a Malaysian plane was shot down by Russians, and he was vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard while Russia furthered its aggression against the sovereign state of Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Europe is about to relive 1938, the year Adolph Hitler annexed the Czech Sudetenland and then foreswore further territorial ambitions. He planned the invasion of Poland, confident England and France would—again—opt for “peace in our time,” while Germany extended lebensraum eastward with an eye on later acquiring the Ukrainian “bread basket” at Russia’s expense.
Editorial critics often remark that opinion writers are long on complaints but short with helpful suggestions. So here it goes. I hope President Obama’s advisors will pass along what follows because it’s time he had some face time—and I mean “in your face time”—with Vladimir Putin.
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Long before former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hit the reset button with Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Serge Lavrov in 2009, the Soviet Union used military exercises as a prelude to invade and set. This allowed them to diffuse potential unrest in its East European empire, most notably in East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat borrowed a page from the Soviet operational planning book when Egypt launched its October 1973 war with Israel. It was a conflict that ultimately set the table for the 1979 peace accord returning the Suez peninsula (minus the vexing Gaza strip) to Egypt. Chalk one up for Egyptian strategic acumen.
Today, Russia retaking Crimea was a strategic no-brainer. Moscow was not going to leave its Black Sea “window to the West” naval base at Sevastopol hostage in an independent Ukraine after Kiev posited a desire to join NATO. Since the 16th century, the troublesome home of the often troublesome Zaporozhye Cossacks has either suffered under Moscow’s boot or posed a potential threat in what Moscow considers her “near abroad.” As Winston Churchill presciently observed, whether under czars or commissars, Moscow invariably pursues its foreign policy interest and high on that list is securing its western buffer from the Baltic to the Black Sea. In that regard, Vladimir Putin ranks with Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and Joseph Stalin.
What is a savvy former community organizer and social-justice activist to do when faced with a determined former KGB thug? To start, it is time to deal with reality by recognizing what Putin is all about: reestablishing Moscow’s European hegemony and regaining world power status. With Ukraine clearly in Putin’s crosshairs and the U.S. military in a near-death spiral due to a combination of perceived war weariness—especially among those in the Democratic Party’s far-left constituency—and sequester-driven budget cuts, President Obama needs to muster our European allies. He could start by placing a NATO air base in Poland where he dispatched a dozen F-16 fighters after Moscow annexed Crimea in February. A combined squadron of 12 F-15C air-superiority fighters along with a dozen F-15E Strike Eagles would make for a terrific first step. Putting another 12 F-16s in Poland to comprise a full squadron and then turning them over to the Polish Air Force would provide a host-country presence on that NATO base. The British could help by contributing a squadron of Eurofighters or Tornado F-4 strike variants. A NATO air base in Poland serves the purpose of drawing a very real line in the East European turf and should adequately cover the anti-missile sites the U.S. could place in Poland and the Czech Republic. A U.S. armored brigade and an infantry brigade moved from Germany to Poland would underscore the commitment.
Ultimately, Ukraine will likely become a victim of its sad Muscovite history. Poland, too, has a historical Russian connection and also has been the trampling ground for European aggressors from Napoleon to Hitler and Stalin. Poland’s NATO status supposedly weds the country’s future to that of Western Europe and the United States. If Vladimir Putin is not faced with a clear U.S. resolve to honor that commitment, the world may be plunged into Armageddon. Aggressors always show up.
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Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. He currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama where he is writing a history of the University of Alabama in the 1960s. A retired Air Force intelligence officer, Dr. Tilford earned his PhD in American and European military history at George Washington University. From 1993 to 2001, he served as Director of Research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute. In 2001, he left Government service for a professorship at Grove City College, where he taught courses in military history, national security, and international and domestic terrorism and counter-terrorism.