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After Crimea annexation, time to rally around our European allies with missile defense and more

In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, several public figures, most notably former Vice President Dick Cheney and Senator Ted Cruz, have called to resurrect a plan to build missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic that President Obama canceled in 2009. They’re on to something.

The proposed missile defense sites would have protected the U.S. and Europe from Iranian missiles. They were comprised of 10 large interceptors (think bullets) that were to be placed in Poland – too close, too big and too few to affect the Russian arsenal. Accompanying radar in the Czech Republic would have helped those interceptors “see” a long-range missile launched from Iran and would then shoot at it.

We must rally behind our European allies with actual hardware to show we mean business.

Our allies mostly wanted the site for reasons unrelated to Iran. Poland, fearful of Russian attack and outright invasion, wanted American troops operating an American system on Polish soil. More importantly, it wanted the U.S. to fulfill its commitment to make this happen even though Russia would object.

The U.S. had an ultimatum – and by canceling plans to build that missile site, President Obama chose appeasing Moscow over standing with Poland. And in that one decision, the stage was set – not for Russia “reset” but for Russia to undermine the U.S. in several other global challenges, ranging from blocking effective international action in Iran and Syria to invading a sovereign nation – and, if it is not stopped, possibly even members of NATO.

In other words, Putin won that hand, and several subsequent ones, in this complex poker game that affects global stability. 

As pleasant as it sounds to turn away and live our lives oblivious to what may go on across spans of ocean, it simply isn’t the way the world works.

The U.S. and our allies follow laws and treaties and rely on alliances to live peacefully, trade and prosper. It is foolishness to believe that Moscow operates as we do. And yet, it seems our secretary of state does believe such a thing.

John Kerry said of the Russian invasion that "You just don't in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext." 

Really? Putin’s behavior is as old as human nature itself.

Russia believes in preserving and expanding its “sphere of influence” and is not bound by national borders, laws, treaties or outcry from the rest of the world. It does understand military might, and, whether we like it or not, it is military might that backs up those laws and preserves peace.

This does not mean the U.S. should threaten to use military force at every turn. We have many tools at our disposal, including diplomacy, sanctions and a huge spectrum of military deployment options apart from sending in troops. Prudence is needed to determine how and when to respond.

But in this poker game -- it is the U.S., China and Russia – with the largest militaries, the most missiles and effective nuclear arsenals – that hold the most meaningful cards. 

Putin has called Obama’s bluff. He in no way believes the cost to aggression in Ukraine and beyond will result in punishments that outweigh his gain, and so he is collecting the chips. And, contemptibly, there appears to be little the U.S. is willing to do to stop him.

In the hopes there is someone in the White House serious about stopping Putin’s march, there are actions the U.S. could take now, including advancing missile defense.

In that regard, Cruz and Cheney are correct. But it shouldn’t be the sites in Poland and the Czech Republic that the president canceled. We should build out that particular system on U.S. soil to defend against some long-range missiles.

We should immediately deploy other missile defense systems to Europe that are capable of intercepting Russian missiles. For example, we could park an Aegis destroyer in the Black Sea, or the North Sea, or both. Let’s deploy short -- and medium-range systems like THAAD and Patriot batteries to defend against the massive short-range Russian missile force. 

Let’s deploy more capable radar so we can see what the Russians are really doing. The administration already has a plan to deploy some assets in Europe as part of a modest, phased approach to protect against shorter-ranged Iranian missiles, but it’s long past time the U.S. took a shrewd and clear-eyed view of the world. 

If we want trade, prosperity and peace, we need to be the ones setting the terms and backing them up in meaningful ways.

We must rally behind our European allies with actual hardware to show we mean business. Because if we do not, we resign ourselves to a world in which the likes of Vladmir Putin invade sovereign nations and call the shots on “completely trumped up pretext.”

Rebeccah Heinrichs is a fellow at the George Marshall Institute and the former manager of the House Missile Defense Caucus.