The downing of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 on July 17 was a great tragedy, and the world wants to make sure that such an event never happens again. People all over the globe, not least Australians and the Dutch who have lost more than 230 civilians, have been understandably angry about the failure of the Russian-backed rebels in Eastern Ukraine to respond satisfactorily to this calamity.
But it is imperative that we think clearly and, if necessary, coldly, about the underlying cause of the Russia-Ukraine standoff, which sparked the military blunder. If we fail to do so, we’ll have little hope of trying to solve it. Alas, there is a real danger that the West’s response—more sanctions against Russia, diplomatic isolation of Vladimir Putin, increased military support to Ukraine—could exacerbate tensions.
The conventional wisdom in the West blames the turmoil on Putin’s goal to recreate the former Soviet Empire. The Bear is on the prowl again, we’re told, and it must be put back in its cage.
But the United States and the European Union are hardly blameless. As John Mearsheimer, one of America’s leading experts on international relations, points out in a forthcoming issue of Foreign Affairs, it was the West’s efforts to pull Ukraine away from Russia’s strategic orbit that was guaranteed to cause big trouble.
By expanding NATO up to Russia’s borders in the Clinton and George W. Bush eras, and by helping bring down a democratically elected, pro-Moscow—albeit corrupt and thuggish—government in Kiev last February, the West has poked at the Bear and failed to see how those decisions look from its perspective.
It has repudiated the implicit agreement between president George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990-91 that the Atlantic alliance would not extend into Eastern Europe and the Baltics, a region that Russia has viewed as a necessary zone of protection long before Stalin appeared on the scene. In so doing, the West has taken no account at all for Russian susceptibilities and interests.
For Moscow, unlike Washington and Brussels, Ukraine is a matter of intense strategic importance: it covers a huge terrain that the French and Germans crossed to attack Russia in the 19th and 20th centuries. As Professor Mearsheimer asks: why would any Russian leader tolerate a cold-war military pact to move into his nation’s backyard? And why would he acquiesce in a Western-backed coup to replace an ally with an anti-Russian regime in Kiev?
Since the collapse of Soviet communism, Western liberals and neo-conservatives have declared the demise of power politics and triumph of self-determination. But Putin’s calculations are based on an old truth of geopolitics: great powers fight tooth and nail when vital strategic interests are at stake and doggedly guard what they deem as their spheres of influence.
This is unfortunate, but it is the way the world works, and always has. Imagine how Washington would respond if Russia had signed up Panama in a military pact, put rockets and missiles in Cuba, or helped bring down a democratically elected, pro-U.S. government in Mexico.
It was inevitable that Moscow would push back somewhere. But if Putin were the reincarnation of Hitler, as Hillary Clinton and Zbigniew Brzezinski suggest, why hasn’t he annexed the rebel strongholds of Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine? (Putin even discouraged the insurgents from holding their referendum on independence in May.)
Where were the signs of the Kremlin’s intentions to invade Crimea before the downfall of the pro-Russian Yanukovych government in February? It was this episode, remember, that sparked Putin’s military incursion in the Ukrainian peninsula, the traditional home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Which suggests that he is acting defensively.
For the West to further isolate Moscow and at the same time escalate military support to Ukraine is fraught with danger. Russia is a declining power, but it maintains a huge arsenal of nuclear weapons. If made desperate and humiliated further, it could be dangerous, like a cornered, wounded animal.
Strident talk about banning Putin from the G20 in Brisbane will only backfire against the West’s interests. The point of such institutions is not that they are a reward for obliging behavior, but rather that they provide a means to deal with common challenges. Moscow’s help is needed in Afghanistan, Syria, and Iran.
At a time when Americans are tired of the world, moreover, it would not seem prudent to pick a fight over a region where no U.S. army has even fought before. Although American views of Russia are less positive today than at any time since the end of the Cold War, few consider Putin a critical threat to the U.S. According to recent Chicago Council survey, only 30 percent of Americans support military intervention in Ukraine if Russia invades the rest of the country.
Rather than extend economic sanctions against Russia and boost military support to Ukraine, our leaders should tone down our bombast and understand the motives for Putin’s conduct. He wants Ukraine to be a neutral buffer state (which is neither a NATO nor EU member) and its government to respect minority rights of ethnic Russians in this bitterly divided country. If Moscow and the Western-backed Kiev regime can’t reach a settlement, and if the latter continues to bomb cities in eastern Ukraine, more disasters like the downing of a passenger jet can’t be ruled out.
Let me be clear: my aim here is not to defend anything Putin has done, but simply to explain his response to what he deems a genuine threat to Russia’s vital interests. If we understand Putin’s motivations, his conduct is easy to understand, which is not to say we have to like it. We need to understand what caused this crisis to have any hope of trying to solve it.
Tom Switzer is editor of the American Review, published by the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre.
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.
Whether the deal to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles is enforceable and verifiable is an open question. But what is clear is that some cautionary lessons have already emerged from this crisis. Here are three of them.
First, be wary of the injunction “Don’t just stand there; do something.”
Since Syria erupted into civil war in mid-2011, commentators left and right have called for the United States to attack the Assad regime as well as to provide arms to its opponents.
But contrary to what many liberal hawks and neoconservatives claim, the violence in Syria is no worse than what Washington has been able to bear with comparative equanimity in Rwanda, Sudan, and Congo. On what moral grounds should one decide that one war is intolerable while another can be ignored?
In the field of foreign policy, the most famous advice offered to practitioners—the French statesman Talleyrand’s “Above all, not too much zeal”—showed a profound distaste for “busyness.” It’s both wise and routinely ignored advice. Remember how can-do, hands-on liberal hawks (Rusk, McNamara) screwed things up in Vietnam or how hyperactive neoconservatives (Wolfowitz, Feith) proved to be incompetent and ineffective in Iraq.
None of this is to imply that forceful action is never justified: it is in the right circumstances and when the right conditions are met. But the national interest did not require a major U.S. intervention in Syria, the political support for it did not exist and could not be mobilized, and the conflict itself has been morally ambiguous: a brutal dictatorship, backed by Shiite Iran and its Lebanon-based proxy, Hezbollah, versus a largely Islamist rebellion supported by Sunni powers as well as al-Qaeda-aligned extremist fighters.
Given that the political objective was perilously unclear, there has been much to be said for a policy of restraint and caution. As even President Obama warned as recently as last month: “Sometimes what we’ve seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations, can result in us being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region.”
A second lesson: Don’t make threats or commitments lightly; make them only if you’re prepared and able to honor them. Read More…
In the very final episode of “Fawlty Towers,” the classic ’70s British sitcom, the local Health and Safety Inspector confronts a hapless Basil with a long and horrendous list of everything that is wrong with his hotel, including “dirty and greasy filters, encrusted deep fryer, inadequate temperature control, dirty cracked and missing wall and floor tiles, greasy interior surfaces of the ventilator hoods, storage of raw meat above confectionary with consequent dripping of meat juices onto cream products, refrigerator seals loose and cracked, lack of hand basins and two dead pigeons in the water tank.”
To which the inimitable John Cleese replied: “Otherwise OK?”
I was reminded of that classic comedy recently when Tony Blair, who helped lead us into the Iraq flytrap ten years ago, appeared on BBC’s “Newsnight.” In painstaking detail, the former British prime minister admitted that life in Iraq today is not quite what he had hoped it would be.
After all, there “are still terrorist activities that are killing innocent people for no good reason.” The “liberation” of Iraq saw the death of at least 100,000 Iraqi civilians (other estimates are up to 200,000), not to mention thousands of coalition troops. The country is still facing “big problems.” All true, conceded Blair. But when all is said and done, he reasoned, at least a murderous despot is gone and democracy has taken root in the heart of the Arab world.
Never mind that the war was built on a series of falsehoods propagated by neocon-artists: who can forget the dodgy dossier and the “45-minute” Iraqi missile threat? Never mind that the tried and tested policy of containment (sanctions, no-fly zone, naval blockade) had kept Saddam Hussein in his box. And never mind that the task of exporting democracy to an arbitrarily created state and ethnically and tribally fractured society was bound to be so messy and so dangerous that it was not worth so much blood and treasure.
The point here is that ten years since “shock and awe,” Iraq has become an unmitigated disaster, something that many antiwar critics—from Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, and Al Gore on the left to Pat Buchanan, Ron Paul, and this magazine on the right—had predicted.
The Baathists and Islamists were not in cahoots, yet Saddam’s collapse attracted al-Qaeda fighters like flies on a dying animal. The occupation replaced a Sunni regime with a Shia regime, setting Shia against Sunni. In Fallujah, the birthplace of the insurgency against the alien occupiers, Sunnis are rising up against the Shia-led government that the Americans left behind.
Iran has expanded its sphere of influence into the mess-in-potamia. Iraqi women are more repressed than ever. Militia killings and car bombings take place almost every week. America paid dearly in blood and treasure and its reputation was tainted by the torture rooms of Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, and the CIA’s secret prisons. The streets of many towns are less safe today than before “liberation.” Some two million refugees have fled the joint.
True, President Bush’s “surge” in 2007 bought some time to allow “democratic” elections to take place, but never enough time, as erstwhile hawk Andrew Sullivan now concedes, to get the sectarian mess of post-Saddam Iraq to try to resolve itself peacefully and form a viable non-sectarian polity.
Albert Wohlstetter, the intellectual mentor to leading neoconservative Paul Wolfowitz, once said that “a truly bad idea never really dies.” Today, many of the same people who championed an egregious strategic blunder a decade ago support a pre-emptive strike on Iran. And many neocons and liberal hawks alike are egging on a cash-strapped Uncle Sam to meddle in Syria’s civil war.
But surely the lesson of the Iraq misadventure is that Jeffersonian democracy cannot be rolled out like Astroturf, and imposing it on artificial states and medieval societies courts danger. Nor is preventive war the right way to handle tyrants with nukes. Unlike terrorists who can run and hide or who do not fear death, rogue states have a return address and want to survive. If the Mullahs used WMDs against U.S. interests, the Iranian regime would meet, as academic Condi Rice put it before she entered government, “national obliteration” from the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Too bad Blair and the neocons have not learned the lessons of their misbegotten venture.
Otherwise OK, as Basil Fawlty would say.
Tom Switzer is editor of Spectator Australia and a research fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.