How Do You Solve a Problem Like Russia?

American Actions Speak Louder Than Words

By Rep. Mac Thornberry

Tanks and Infantry Fighting Vehicle elements of the Russian Motor Rifle Regiment near Kuzminka, Russia.

If there was ever any question that the security situation in the world is constantly changing, these past five years provide undeniable evidence.

It must be clear even to Barack Obama that the world he hoped and wanted to find is not the world as it is.  In the real world there is evil, aggression and opportunism willing to exploit any perceived weakness.  Whether it is Vladimir Putin’s Russia, al-Qaeda, North Korea, Iran, China, or others, there are adversaries ready to pounce on any opening offered by U.S. retreat.  And they, as well as our allies and the rest of the world, are watching very carefully to see how the United States proceeds in light of Russian annexation of Crimea.

What should we do?

First, there is widespread consensus that Russia must be made to pay a price for its aggression.  While no one advocates military force to reverse the Crimea seizure, we cannot allow it to stand without Russia suffering some consequence.  Diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions, even those that hurt some U.S. industries, need to be imposed.  We need to push the Europeans as far as we can toward joining us, but we also cannot allow our sanctions to be limited by the weakest link in the sanctions chain.

Many analysts point to the mid- to long-term weakness in the Russian economy.  Smart Russians know that as well.  The sanctions imposed now will not cause Putin to withdraw from Crimea but could increase the anxiety about where he is taking the country, weakening his hold.

Second, we must strengthen our support for those nations that are threatened.  Appropriate military and financial support to Ukraine should be pursued.  Reassuring steps for the Baltics’ defense should be taken.  Swiftly cutting through the roadblocks to allow exports of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) and support the development of natural gas production in Poland and other Eastern European nations must be a priority.

Third, the president and those in his administration should be very careful about what they say, and make absolutely certain that no declarations are made nor any “red lines” drawn that the United States will not back up.  One of the most damaging developments to U.S. national interests has been the loss of credibility.  From our premature withdrawal from Iraq to lines drawn in the sand in Syria, we have failed to match our rhetoric and our promises with action.  As a result, much of the world does not take statements by our president seriously.

This problem will not be solved within the time left to this administration.  U.S. credibility has been damaged seriously, and it will take time and proof to repair it.  But a starting place is to not damage it any further.  At no time in recent history has it been more important to “speak softly and carry a big stick.”  That will be a challenge for a president who has a high opinion of his rhetorical abilities and at a time when so many words are carelessly bandied about.  But it is absolutely necessary to align our words with our actions. And that begins by restraining our words.

Fourth, and most importantly, we need to increase defense spending.  While restraining our rhetoric is part of the equation for restoring our credibility, our decreasing defense budgets and the resulting decline in capabilities are even more significant factors.  Nothing will make it clearer to Vladimir Putin that we will not lay down before him than to have President Obama propose a new, higher defense budget.  The amount of the increase is not as important as the direction as long as it is a significant change.

We should not relax our effort to get more defense out of every dollar we spend.  That means continuing to push defense reforms, such as reducing overhead costs and making improvements in our broken acquisition system.  In a host of areas, we need to update old laws and programs to meet the wide array of challenges we face today. 

While we are pursuing those reforms, however, the clearest message and the most effective results come from an increasing defense budget.  The United States must show the world – as opposed to just saying it in a speech – that the U.S. is not in retreat.  Making it abundantly clear that our military capabilities are second to none is the surest way to discourage further aggression.  It also ensures that we are as prepared as possible for the security challenges to come.  This kind of approach acknowledges the realities of the world and will help shape a safer place in the days to come.

Rep. Mac Thornberry serves as the Vice Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

Rep. Mac Thornberry
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