03/18/2014 06:02 pm ET Updated May 18, 2014

Is Crimea Obama's Fault? Why Deterrence Failed in Crimea

Russia's military occupation and unrecognized annexation of the Crimean Peninsula underscore its willingness to defy the threats and demands of the United States. Why has American deterrence been so ineffectual?

Republicans have been quick to blame President Barack Obama. According to Senator Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., "We have a weak and indecisive president that invites aggression." Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., took a similar view, "This is the ultimate result of a feckless foreign policy where nobody believes in America's strength anymore." At the same time, both senators do agree with President Obama that, in McCain's words, "There is not a military option that can be exercised now." Although these may seem like two different issues, there is an inherent contradiction here.

Deterrence works when the threat to punish an adversary for crossing a red line is credible, i.e., when the deterrer has a usable military option. If there is no military option, and if Russia values Crimea more than the economic and diplomatic costs that are coming its way, how could deterrence have been made credible? What policy was available to the Obama Administration before recent events that would have created a usable military option? Blaming the President's policies for Russia's behavior in Crimea is only as persuasive as the answer to that question.

No amount of blustery rhetoric from the White House would have changed the fact that the United States has no vital interest in keeping Crimea's ethnic-Russian majority population in Ukraine. Russia's greater interest in the Crimea gave it an edge from the outset, but deterrence in Crimea was harder than interests alone suggest.

Credible threats underpin successful deterrence, but as the stakes get smaller, it becomes harder to credibly threaten war. Normally, borders help solve this problem. Nations group their many small pieces of territory together within their borders. Letting an enemy violate the border and seize even a small piece of territory calls into question the willingness to fight for the next piece, sapping deterrence of any credibility. As deterrence theorist Thomas Schelling put it, the key question is, "If not here, where?"

For this reason, however, awkward pieces of territory like the Crimean Peninsula that are in some way separate or external create especially serious challenges for deterrence. For example, Russia's 1969 border war with China broke out in part because of Zhenbao (Damansky) Island. This disputed island sits awkwardly within the Ussuri River, on which both sides agreed that the border lay. Soviet threats to the isolated pocket that was West Berlin caused several of the most serious crises of the Cold War. Berlin was held with great difficulty, due only to the presence of American, British and French forces.

Not only is the Crimean Peninsula geographically separate from the rest of Ukraine, but it is also historically distinct. Nikita Khrushchev's 1954 decision to transfer Crimea from Russia to Ukraine (then both part of the Soviet Union) remains a mystery to this day, as Crimea was not previously part of Ukraine. Because Crimea is uniquely detachable from the rest of Ukraine, deterring its seizure in a fait accompli is particularly difficult.

This may be why Russia has (so far) stopped with Crimea, rather than occupy Donetsk, Kharkiv and other parts of Ukraine with large linguistically and ethnically Russian populations. Crimea is simply more detachable. As soon as Russian forces move any further, where does it end? How much of Ukraine's East would they take? Would the Russian military really sit by and ignore protests from pro-Russian minorities in parts of Ukraine just beyond the front lines? Unlike Crimea, there would be no natural red line to halt Russia, short of Kiev. As a result, the new Ukrainian government would face much stronger pressure to fight. Effective deterrence requires a usable military option, and Ukrainian leaders might well see no alternative to fighting if Russia tries to seize Ukrainian territory beyond the Crimean Peninsula. So far, this seems to have been enough to deter Russia from moving further into the Ukraine, but there are no guarantees that it will continue to do so.

No one can accuse the George W. Bush administration of a timid foreign policy, but it, too, ultimately did little more than stand by as Russia invaded Georgia in 2008. Blaming the Russian occupation of Crimea on Obama Administration policies is an easy claim to make, but it is no more accurate than blaming President Bush for the Georgia conflict. Deterrent threats are credible when the deterrer has an effective military option and enough interest at stake to make it usable. Deterrent red lines are stronger when they are protecting an integral piece of home territory -- even a small one -- rather than a region with the geographic and historical separateness of Crimea. Because these conditions were not met, Crimea's vulnerability was inherent to the situation. President Obama could not have changed these facts by conducting American foreign policy in a more strident and bellicose manner.


Daniel Altman is a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. He is also a Ph.D. candidate in the MIT Political Science Department writing a dissertation entitled: Red Lines and Faits Accomplis in Interstate Coercion and Crisis.