Posturing and flexing of political influence on regional issues is normal in country-to-country relations and all countries practice it regularly. In the case of the United States, its ability to wage war in most parts of the world and its economic prosperity gives it power from where to wield its influence and thus control outcomes. Very few countries can challenge the US military and economic superiority and thus when the US government asserts influence over a regional dispute most countries back away from their adventure.
Unlike the US, countries such as North Korea, as an example, will attempt to influence outcomes through rhetoric and outright lies however their attempts are laughable at best as their ability to carry out threats over other countries is clearly nonexistent as their economy and thus their military is in utter shambles. When North Korea demands that some other country stay out of the internal politics of another most people just laugh off the absurdity of it all. That is because North Korea couldn’t mount a credible threat to any country and thus their ability to effect change is laughable at best.
Although the US has the proven ability to influence most regions of the world, there are a few countries that the US is unable to force into submission for economic and military reasons. To be clear, I’m not talking about military-to-military engagements but rather about influencing a country’s actions by the threat of military intervention, economic isolation or both. One of these countries is Russia.
As you are aware, Russia has decided to assert its political influence over one of its former Soviet satellites, the Ukraine. In late February 2014, its forces took control of the Crimean Peninsula. Those into military history probably appreciate the historical aspects of Russia’s actions, while the military strategists have recognized the effectiveness of how it has played out so far. In many ways, the US was checkmated by Russia in this region.
The US, though, has historically articulated its position on geopolitical issues and many times it affects change through economic and military threats. When it cannot do this, the US postures although many speculate it will not go through with its threats. Other times the bluster dies after the crisis has settled into the new reality. However, when the US blusters, it at least has the semblance of being able to back up its threats through actions, although many know that the US won’t follow through in the end.
As soon as I started following the Ukrainian crisis, my first thought was that the US space program is much too dependent on the Russians for the Obama administration to effectively influence Russia. After the US retired its fleet of Space Shuttles, the US became completely dependent on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to ferry astronauts back and forth between Earth and the International Space Station. There is only one other country capable of the launching men into space and that is China. That left the US space program, a government program, in a precarious situation; its two astronauts in space.
Even if the US were to suspend its participation in the ISS until it publicly acknowledges a spacecraft capable of reaching the space station there is still the problem of the two US astronauts on the space station. Will they stay there until the US fields a spacecraft to go get them, or will the US ask China to go get them for NASA? More importantly, should an emergency arise on the space station, the only spacecraft currently docked at the space station is a Russian Soyuz.
Understanding the realities of geopolitics I figured that reality would simply be ignored by the politicians. It is an inconvenient truth and as such bringing attention to it serves no purpose other than to point it out and show US citizens its county’s inability to influence the Ukrainian situation. That was until I was eating lunch and taking in my daily news feeds yesterday.
I nearly chocked on my lunch as I read The Atlantic.
Yesterday’s Atlantic shared an internal NASA memorandum purporting to suspend all NASA contacts with Russian officials. The memorandum was made public by SpaceRef, a space news and reference site. The memorandum, attributed to Michael O’Brien, and dated April 2, 2014 states that NASA is suspending all contact with Russian Government representatives. According to the memorandum, the “U.S. Government” ordered the suspension. Except for “operational International Space Station activities”, all other “travel to Russia and visits by Russian Government representatives are suspended”. The suspension includes “bilateral meetings, email, and teleconferences or videoconferences”.
Although the space station is specifically exempted, the reality is that the suspension is nothing more than bluster without any teeth because two US astronauts are wholly dependent on the Russians to ensure their safety. Clearly, the US government’s position on this specific matter is not any different from North Korea’s threats to invade South Korea every time the north wants to remain relevant.
Someone needs to memo the Obama administration and remind them that two US citizens are completely dependent on Russia for their survival before someone issues another stupid directive.