US to Ukraine: Stand Down!

(Map courtesy Maps)

(Map courtesy Maps)

Here’s a curious new wrinkle in what we know about Russia’s annexation of Crimea last year:

As Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces took over Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in early 2014, the interim Ukrainian government was debating whether or not to fight back against the “little green men” Russia had deployed. But the message from the Barack Obama administration was clear: avoid military confrontation with Moscow.

The White House’s message to Kiev was advice, not an order, U.S. and Ukrainian officials have recently told us, and was based on a variety of factors. There was a lack of clarity about what Russia was really doing on the ground. The Ukrainian military was in no shape to confront the Russian Spetsnaz (special operations) forces that were swarming on the Crimean peninsula. Moreover, the Ukrainian government in Kiev was only an interim administration until the country would vote in elections a few months later. Ukrainian officials told us that other European governments sent Kiev a similar message.

The story (by Josh Rogin & Eli Lake) goes on to report that western capitals were afraid that if Ukraine fought back, “it would give Putin justification to launch greater military intervention in Ukraine.” Of course, and I do mean of course, Ukraine’s passivity in Crimea and elsewhere during the first half of 2014 only encouraged Putin to try and take more.

Kyiv’s seemingly wishy-washy attitude towards its own territorial integrity even had me convinced the country was a lost cause, and that our best course of action was to try and salvage what we could from Putin. But then came this year’s Summer Offensive That Wasn’t, and yesterday’s report that Putin has switched his main effort from the military to the political — and you realize that Crimea was given up unnecessarily. Had Ukraine been encouraged (and equipped) early last year, Putin might have been denied an important prize and suffered a major — possibly even politically fatal — embarrassment.

Putin at Crimea. Hitler at the Rheinland. Why do we never learn?