Michael Peck – Forbes
America is the mightiest military power in the world. And that fact means absolutely nothing for the Ukraine crisis. Regardless of whether Russia continues to occupy the Crimea region of Ukraine, or decides to occupy all of Ukraine, the U.S. is not going to get into a shooting war with Russia.
This has nothing to do with whether Obama is strong or weak. Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan would face the same constraints. The U.S. may threaten to impose economic sanctions, but here is why America will never smack Russia with a big stick:
Russia is a nuclear superpower. Russia has an estimated 4,500 active nuclear warheads, according to the Federation of American Scientists. Unlike North Korea or perhaps Iran, whose nuclear arsenals couldn’t inflict substantial damage, Russia could totally devastate the U.S. as well as the rest of the planet. U.S. missile defenses, assuming they even work, are not designed to stop a massive Russian strike.
For the 46 years of the Cold War, America and Russia were deadly rivals. But they never fought. Their proxies fought: Koreans, Vietnamese, Central Americans, Israelis and Arabs. The one time that U.S. and Soviet forces almost went to war was during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Neither Obama nor Putin is crazy enough to want to repeat that.
Russia has a powerful army. While the Russian military is a shadow of its Soviet glory days, it is still a formidable force. The Russian army has about 300,000 men and 2,500 tanks (with another 18,000 tanks in storage), according to the “Military Balance 2014″ from the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Its air force has almost 1,400 aircraft, and its navy 171 ships, including 25 in the Black Sea Fleet off Ukraine’s coast.
U.S. forces are more capable than Russian forces, which did not perform impressively during the 2008 Russo-Georgia War. American troops would enjoy better training, communications, drones, sensors and possibly better weapons (though the latest Russian fighter jets, such as the T-50, could be trouble for U.S. pilots). However, better is not good enough. The Russian military is not composed of lightly armed insurgents like the Taliban, or a hapless army like the Iraqis in 2003. With advanced weapons like T-80 tanks, supersonic AT-15 Springer anti-tank missiles, BM-30 Smerch multiple rocket launchers and S-400 Growler anti-aircraft missiles, Russian forces pack enough firepower to inflict significant American losses.
Ukraine is closer to Russia. The distance between Kiev and Moscow is 500 miles. The distance between Kiev and New York is 5,000 miles. It’s much easier for Russia to send troops and supplies by land than for the U.S. to send them by sea or air.
The U.S. military is tired. After nearly 13 years of war, America’s armed forces need a breather. Equipment is worn out from long service in Iraq and Afghanistan, personnel are worn out from repeated deployments overseas, and there are still about 40,000 troops still fighting in Afghanistan.
The U.S. doesn’t have many troops to send. The U.S. could easily dispatch air power to Ukraine if its NATO allies allow use of their airbases, and the aircraft carrier George H. W. Bush and its hundred aircraft are patrolling the Mediterranean. But for a ground war to liberate Crimea or defend Ukraine, there is just the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Italy, the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit sailing off Spain, the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment in Germany and the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
While the paratroopers could drop into the combat zone, the Marines would have sail past Russian defenses in the Black Sea, and the Stryker brigade would probably have to travel overland through Poland into Ukraine. Otherwise, bringing in mechanized combat brigades from the U.S. would be logistically difficult, and more important, could take months to organize.
The American people are tired. Pity the poor politician who tries to sell the American public on yet another war, especially some complex conflict in a distant Eastern Europe nation. Neville Chamberlain’s words during the 1938 Czechoslovakia crisis come to mind: “How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing.”
America‘s allies are tired. NATO sent troops to support the American campaign in Afghanistan, and has little to show for it. Britain sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, and has little to show for it. It is almost inconceivable to imagine the Western European public marching in the streets to demand the liberation of Crimea, especially considering the region’s sputtering economy, which might be snuffed out should Russia stop exporting natural gas. As for military capabilities, the Europeans couldn’t evict Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi without American help. And Germans fighting Russians again? Let’s not even go there.
This doesn’t mean that war is impossible. If Russia invades the Baltic States to “protect” their ethnic Russian minorities, the guns could indeed roar. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are NATO members. What would Ronald Reagan have done if the Soviets had invaded West Germany? Barack Obama would face more or less the same question in a Baltic crisis, or if a Ukraine conflict spills over into fellow NATO member Poland.
However, talk of using military force against Russia over Ukraine is just talk. It will stay that way.