Unfashionable though it is to say, Russia’s military incursion into Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula does not represent, as the Financial Times editorializes, a second Cold War. Instead, it is the rational reaction of a great power into the affairs of an unruly state in its neighborhood. Call it the return of realism.
Foreign policy realism, among other things, reflects a way of seeing things as they really are. And at least since the birth of the nation-state in 1648, great powers have been determined to protect what they deem their vital interests in their “own backyard” or “near abroad.” As realists from Walter Lippmann to Brent Scowcroft have observed, a sphere of influence is a key characteristic of any great power, authoritarian or democratic. It is one of the features that have qualified a power as “great.”
Americans, guided by the notion of exceptionalism, may think they are immune to the historic tendencies of power politics. But it is worth bearing in mind that well before the U.S. emerged as a genuine great power, President Monroe claimed for the United States a sphere of influence in the Caribbean and Central America. When commentators and politicians hyperventilate over Russia’s recent behavior, they should recall U.S. military interventions in Haiti, Cuba, Nicaragua, Panama, Grenada, and the Dominican Republic. None of this is extraordinary; it is the way the world works, and has always worked.
Since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Empire, however, a new orthodoxy has emerged: a belief that, as Bill Clinton once declared, “the cynical calculus of power politics” no longer works in the era of globalization and the spread of democracy. No more accommodation of aggression. National self-determination represents the wave of the future. A rules-based international order is the norm. We arrived at the End of History: Woodrow Wilson won; Prince Metternich lost.
That is why President Obama speaks for many people when he insists that Russia is “on the wrong side of history.” But one can sympathize with the new Ukrainian government and label Vladimir Putin a thuggish dictator, and still believe Putin merely wants to restore Russia’s traditional zone of protection on its borders. After all, he is the president of a great power still bruised and humiliated by the collapse of the Soviet Union, and deeply resentful of the prospect of U.S. missiles in its backyard. Imagine how Washington would regard Russian military intrusion in northern Mexico.
For Moscow, there has long been a geopolitical and historical basis for its interest in the territories of central Asia. Strategic interests and traditional motives of prestige made Ukraine a matter of intense importance to Russia, even under the Tsars. Remember the Crimean War of 1853-56?
More recently, Ukraine is a conduit for gas exports to Western European markets. Its naval base in Sevastopol hosts the Black Sea fleet. And ethnic Russians comprise nearly 60 percent of Crimea’s two million citizens (many of whom would support reunification with the motherland).
Meanwhile, a democratically elected, pro-Russian government has been overthrown. And the new Western-backed interim government with no democratic legitimacy includes hard-line nationalists with possible links to terrorists. (President George H.W. Bush’s warnings that Ukrainian independence could unleash “suicidal nationalism” do not sound so absurd 23 years later.)
Of course, Putin may overreach by toppling Kiev. But if he is as calculating as many Russian specialists say he is, and as he appeared to indicate in his press conference yesterday, then he is more likely to encourage Ukraine’s new leaders to allow the de facto partition of areas populated predominantly by ethnic Russians—from the Crimea in the south to the industrial heartland in the east.
For the West to ignore Russian susceptibilities and to further isolate Moscow is surely an act of folly. It could provoke more chauvinistic elements in Russia to exploit resentments and wounded national pride in ways that could be dangerous at home and abroad. We are, remember, dealing with a regime whose nuclear arsenal poses a threat to the U.S. and NATO allies.
At a time when Americans are suffering from foreign policy fatigue and Europeans have no stomach for a stoush, it would not seem prudent to pick a fight with Russia over a region where no U.S. army has even fought before. Even those cold warriors, Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson, backed away from confrontation with Moscow over its meddling in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1956 and 1968, respectively. And when the Communists crushed the Polish Solidarity in a Ukraine-like emergency in 1981, it was (of all people) Ronald Reagan who showed restraint and caution.
Why then would Barack Obama and other Western leaders risk a clash with Moscow nearly a quarter of a century after the fall of the Berlin Wall? Where is the vital U.S. interest? And given Obama’s vacillation and ineptitude over the Syrian crisis, why should Putin take his threats seriously? Why should the Kremlin believe the West’s warnings are any more than a bluff, something done in the hope that the warning itself would be an effective deterrent with no serious intention of honoring it?
Tom Switzer is a research associate at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre and editor of The Spectator Australia.