LYONS: How to respond to Russia’s thrust into Ukraine

Threat of a commensurate move against Syria would get Putin’s attention

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The Obama administration’s bluster and empty threats of consequences if Russia violated Ukraine’s sovereignty only served to show the impotency of President Obama and his national security team.

President Vladimir Putin, brushing aside president Mr. Obama’s rhetoric on consequences, sent Russian troops into Crimea, an autonomous region of Eastern Ukraine. Mr. Obama’s “leading from behind” clearly has no impact on the world stage. In fact, it takes us back to the impotency of the Carter administration when the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his “students” took over our embassy in Tehran.

While the geography of the Ukraine situation certainly favors Mr. Putin’s bold move into the Crimean peninsula with little fear of any outside military response from the West, that does not have to be the case. Even with the disastrous unilateral disarmament of our military brought about by the Obama administration’s sequestration initiative, we are still a great power. Man for man, we have the most dedicated, professional, battle-hardened fighting force in the world.

Even though we are still involved in fighting a war in Afghanistan, we have a recognized and fearsome capability that would permit us to respond “asymmetrically” to Mr. Putin’s blatant invasion of the Ukraine. Actually, the circumstances today put us in a much better position than when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008.

The response we need to take to restore our credibility throughout the world will not be found in the Alinsky playbook. Mr. Putin has certainly calculated that the most likely response from the United States and its partners will be economic sanctions — possibly even boycotting the G-8 Summit in Sochi in June. Therefore, our response must change that calculus by being asymmetrical and capitalize on areas where geography will give the United States the advantage. In that sense, we should immediately deploy two carrier battle groups to the Mediterranean, thereby instantly making the U.S. Sixth Fleet the most potent force in the region.

The message that President Obama should then send to Russia’s President Putin is that if you don’t withdraw your troops from the Ukraine within a specified time frame, we will take down President Bashar Assad and his forces in Syria. Such a move would certainly “reset the start button” with Russia and leave no doubt in Mr. Putin’s mind as to the consequences. Economic sanctions don’t play in this ballgame.

I believe the European Union and our NATO allies would welcome such dramatic action by the United Sates as well as a reassertion of our world leadership. Turkey, along with other NATO allies, should be more than willing to let the U.S. Air Force launch strikes from its air bases into Syria to complement the missile and air campaign from the Sixth Fleet carrier strike groups.

Separately, to counter any moves by Iran, we should immediately transfer bunker-buster bombs to Israel along with several air tanker refueling resources. Transfer of a squadron of F-15 aircraft should also be considered. Such a move would dramatically change the dynamics of our current nuclear negotiations with Iran by unmistakably giving Israel the wherewithal for a successful strike on Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities. Our forces in the Persian Gulf region should be repositioned so that they are ready to respond to any Iranian countermoves. Clearly, such a redeployment of resources would shift the balance of negotiations over nuclear weapon back to the P5 +1 countries.

Iran most likely would threaten to withdraw from the negotiations. We then could stop paying them bribe money to sit at the negotiating table. Nothing would really be lost. More importantly, our credibility would be restored, which would have a major impact throughout the world. Such bold moves would take real leadership. It was lacking in Benghazi. The question is, can President Obama seize this opportunity?

Retired Adm. James A. Lyons was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations.

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