Today is the Sunday of Orthodoxy, the first Sunday in Orthodox Great Lent, which commemorates the Triumph of Orthodoxy and the restoration of the icons in 843 after the second period of Iconoclasm:
The Uncircumscribable Word of the Father was circumscribed when He took flesh of thee, O Theotokos; and when He had restored the defiled image to its ancient state, He suffused it with divine beauty. As for us, confessing our salvation, we record it in deed and word. ~Kontakion of the First Sunday of Great Lent
What is Russia trying to accomplish? Dmitri Trenin tries to make sense of Russia’s actions in Ukraine:
In Moscow, there is a growing fatigue with the west, with the EU and the United States. Their role in Ukraine is believed to be particularly obnoxious: imposing on Ukraine a choice between the EU and Russia that it could not afford; supporting the opposition against an elected government; turning a blind eye to right-wing radical descendants of wartime Nazi collaborators; siding with the opposition to pressure the government into submission; finally, condoning an unconstitutional regime change. The Kremlin is yet again convinced of the truth of the famous maxim of Alexander III, that Russia has only two friends in the world, its army and its navy. Both now defend its interests in Crimea.
What will it cost Russia? Peter Baker reviews the limited options that the U.S. has to penalize Russia for its incursion. Helena Yakovlev-Golani and Nadiya Kravets run through different scenarios for Crimea’s future status (annexation, independence, status quo) and what each one will cost Russia over the long term.
What the U.S. should and shouldn’t do in response. Greg Djerejian offers some excellent advice. Michael Brendan Dougherty advises Americans not to panic. Thomas Graham proposes some possible constructive options.
Is a multipolar world emerging? Steven Metz discusses what a future multipolar order would look like.
If Scotland becomes independent, what happens to the British flag? Matt Ford looks at some of the possibilities for a new U.K. flag.
The New York Times reports on Rubio’s renewed effort to remind us why he should never be president, namely his bad and outdated views on foreign policy. For example, it quotes part of a recent speech he gave at CPAC:
“There is only one nation on earth capable of rallying and bringing together the free people on this planet to stand up to the spread of totalitarianism,” Mr. Rubio told attendees of the Conservative Political Action Conference, offering a tour d’horizon of affairs in China, North Korea, Iran, Venezuela and Russia.
First, totalitarianism isn’t spreading. Insofar as there are still genuinely totalitarian regimes in the world, they control very few countries, and they are not gaining new followers. They shouldn’t be ignored or dismissed, but the danger from them needs to be kept in perspective. Across most of the globe, totalitarianism is nowhere to be found, and that sort of political system has been thoroughly discredited in the eyes of almost all nations since the collapse of the USSR. Some authoritarian regimes are becoming more repressive than they were in the recent past, but in general they are not expanding or increasing their influence. Thinking about the U.S. role in the world as the only country “capable of rallying and bringing together the free people on this planet to stand up to the spread of totalitarianism” might have made sense thirty years ago, but today it is at best a silly anachronism and at worst a profound misunderstanding of the world today. If Rubio genuinely believes that totalitarianism spreading in the world today, he’s simply wrong, and that misunderstanding is bound to warp the rest of his foreign policy views.
For some reason, many Republicans seem to think that Rubio is helping himself to recover politically inside the GOP by emphasizing his hard-line credentials on foreign policy. No doubt there are some hard-line pundits and foreign policy professionals that like what he’s saying, but I don’t understand who else would be both interested in these topics and likely to agree with Rubio’s stale ideas. In addition to offering mostly bad or unworkable ideas in the case of Ukraine, he gives skeptics no reason to trust that he isn’t just a new McCain or Santorum. Here is his weak attempt to reassure his audience that he isn’t a knee-jerk interventionist:
Mr. Rubio seemed to acknowledge this reluctance in his CPAC speech, assuring conservatives that he did not want America “to be involved in 15 wars” and conceding that the country could not resolve every conflict around the globe.
So Rubio is against involvement in 15 wars, but overall he leaves you with the impression that he would have no problem if the U.S. were involved in five or six.
There is a lot wrong with Gerson’s column today, but this line was remarkable for how dishonest it is and how consistently it has been used for five years:
Missile defenses were canceled in Poland, indicating that the Russian relationship was more important to the United States than was the one with Eastern Europe.
The only true part of this statement is that the Bush-era missile defense plan for Poland and the Czech Republic was cancelled, but that doesn’t mean very much. Most Poles and Czechs didn’t want to be part of the scheme, but never mind that. For good or ill, missile defense in eastern Europe hasn’t ended, NATO has now endorsed a new missile defense plan, Poland is still participating in it, and it remains as much of an irritant in the relationship with Moscow as ever. For the first time since they joined NATO, there are contingency plans for the defense of Poland and the Baltic states against invasion. Does that sound like a policy of preferring good relations with Russia at the expense of allies? No, it doesn’t, and a minimally informed person would already know that. Is Gerson ignorant of all this? Maybe, but then he shouldn’t pretend to know what has been happening there over the last few years. This is just one false claim among many that hawks routinely make, but it illustrates the extent to which hawks are quite happy to distort everything or to repeat lazy talking points that they don’t bother to verify to push the same old weary arguments about the need for “strength” and “resolve” and the dangers of “retreat.”
P.S. Nikolas Gvosdev makes an important related point:
The Obama administration’s decision, for instance, to cancel the Bush administration’s plan to deploy a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic was guided as much by concerns about cost and technical infeasibility [bold mine-DL] as it was about improving ties with Russia.
Robert Golan-Vilella comments on the bad American habit of assuming that foreign events are somehow our responsibility:
Underlying all of this is one of the most common errors in U.S. commentary on international relations: the casual assumption that everything that happens anywhere in the world is ultimately about America, and that when anything bad happens anywhere, someone in Washington must ultimately be to blame. The story that Baker describes on the right—in which America’s failure to use military force in Syria and elsewhere spurred Putin to invade Crimea—has the benefit of being an easy-to-understand and politically convenient one for those who are opposed to the president. But there is simply no reason to think that it is true.
It is even more remarkable how quick so many hawks are to blame the U.S. for undesirable events abroad when they are usually the last to acknowledge U.S. responsibility for any of its own actions in the world. As long as the U.S. is behaving aggressively, intrusively, and showing “leadership,” the likes of McCain take for granted that it is all for the best no matter how destructive that behavior may be. Their view of what the U.S. role in the world should and must be requires them to treat virtually every foreign crisis or conflict as a “failure” of American oversight and direction, or at the very least as an opportunity to exercise “leadership,” because they assume that the U.S. can and must influence foreign events in a fairly decisive fashion for the better. If something unfortunate happens, it happened because the U.S. “failed” to prevent or ameliorate it, and that “failure” can be explained only by invoking negligence or “retreat.” According to this warped reasoning, the U.S. can’t be blamed for what it does, but it must always be blamed for doing too little.
As long as it is taken for granted that a hyper-active and hegemonic U.S. is absolutely necessary for maintaining order in the world, any violence or upheaval has to be blamed at least in part on the hegemon that didn’t somehow put a stop to it. Because hegemonists have a grossly exaggerated view of how involved in the world the U.S. is supposed to be, they are bound to treat anything that goes wrong as proof that the U.S. is not involved enough. Then again, blaming U.S. “passivity” can sometimes be a way to distract attention from the things that the U.S. has done wrong in a given region, and those are usually the things that hawks have supported in the past. While this kind of criticism superficially blames the U.S., it is usually just an occasion to demand that the U.S. behave much more aggressively than it already had been and to treat increased hawkishness as a panacea. That is, it becomes an excuse to justify all manner of unwise and provocative U.S. behavior. After all, if one assumes that “passivity” is what made the event possible, the response should be “action,” which hawks conveniently define as whatever they want to do.
The U.S. government is responsible for its rhetoric and actions and for the effects of both, but it can’t be seriously held responsible for the outcomes of most internal disputes and foreign conflicts, especially those in which it had little or nothing at stake. The U.S. becomes responsible for events overseas to the extent that it involves itself directly or indirectly in them, and so it should try to act as carefully and responsibly in its dealings abroad as it possibly can. One part of being careful and responsible in how the U.S. acts overseas is to be very reluctant to interfere, take sides, or otherwise involve itself in foreign disputes and conflicts, and to recognize that the U.S. can often do the most good–or at least the least harm–by remaining impartial and neutral most of the time.
Rich Lowry makes a typically preposterous argument:
This was a perverse misreading of recent history. Of all President Bush’s faults, not giving the Russians a chance wasn’t one of them [bold mine-DL]. He notoriously looked into Putin’s soul at a meeting at the beginning of his presidency and saw sweetness and light. By the end, any illusions he had left were shattered by the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008.
As perverse misreadings of history go, there aren’t many worse than what Lowry has done in this column. Notice how he skips through the entire Bush presidency as if 2001-2009 had been one long attempt to cooperate with Russia that ended badly. That is exactly what it wasn’t. It was a period in which the U.S. consistently pursued policies that were certain to antagonize Russia, which undeniably did antagonize Russia, and which the Bush administration seemed to pursue in no small part because they antagonized Russia.
The silly “soul-gazing” remarks at the beginning of Bush’s presidency were the sort of thing one would expect from a president as clueless on foreign policy as he was, but in terms of policy the last administration reliably did almost all of the things that Moscow opposed. It is not possible to understand Russian behavior over the last ten years without acknowledging the extent to which U.S.-Russian relations were wrecked by several Western policies, chief among them being Bush’s push for missile defense in eastern Europe and NATO expansion into the former USSR. If the Bush administration suffered from any illusions, it was that the U.S. could consistently goad and provoke Russia in its own region without consequences. By the end of Bush’s second term, that illusion was dispelled, and it was in order to repair the substantial damage that had been done in the previous five or six years that the U.S. successfully sought to find common interests with Russia.
As it happened, that effort was finished by the end of Obama’s first term in part because it had succeeded in doing what it tried to do. Both old and new disagreements flared up over the last two years, and we all know what these are. Needless to say, relations with Russia would be even worse and Russian behavior even more antagonistic if the U.S. had pursued more aggressive policies in Syria and the former Soviet Union than it did. That is what hawks have wanted the U.S. to do all along, and it is fortunate that they have not been in a position to make it happen. It matters that Bush-era Russia policy is understood correctly, because the people seeking to revise the history of that period are eager to revive the very same aggressive policies in the former Soviet Union that have already failed so miserably.
Ross Douthat offers a quasi-defense of the importance of U.S. Syria policy for what has happened in Ukraine:
Is it really so ridiculous to believe that the Syria crisis confirmed certain impressions that Putin had already cultivated about America’s willingness to back up its threats [bold mine-DL] and see a given strategy through, and that this influenced his decision to push harder in Ukraine than this White House and its intelligence analysts expected? I think not: Of course this push isn’t “about us” in the sense that, say, Russia’s decision-making in the Cuban Missile Crisis was, but Putin surely took account of the steps that the United States and its allies were likely to undertake in response, and decided that they would be less effective, and less painful to his interests, than our own foreign policy team clearly expected him to think.
This is a much more qualified claim, and while it is not as ridiculous as the ordinary “credibility” and “resolve” arguments I’m not sure that there is any reason to believe it is true. As Russian leaders claim to see things, the U.S. is only too willing to back up threats with force, and has done so with some regularity over the last fifteen years. Moscow sees and fears the possibility of American intervention in other countries long before Washington is actively contemplating such a thing, it assumes that Western governments are always looking for a pretext to intervene against governments that they oppose, and it sees a major U.S. role in any and every major political disturbance in the former Soviet Union whether there is one or not. We could dismiss this as propaganda, but it appears that people in the Kremlin really do believe some or all of this. There is much more reason to think that Russia’s blundering overreaction in Crimea came from believing that the overthrow of Yanukovych was nothing more than a Western-backed coup, but that would mean that the U.S. is partly responsible for the current mess because it was being and was perceived as being too meddlesome in the affairs of another country. That is the last thing that the hawks pushing the connection between Syria and Crimea could or would admit, and so instead we hear endlessly about unenforced “red lines.”
While some Americans may have concluded from the abortive attack on Syria that American threats can’t be taken seriously, Russia was more likely to see this as an intervention that was halted only at the last minute. If Putin already had “certain impressions” about when the U.S. was and wasn’t prepared to use force, these had been formed by watching more than a decade of U.S.-led foreign wars and its (very sensible) unwillingness to back up its would-be Georgian client in 2008. He would have concluded from this that the U.S. is quite ready to go to war against much weaker governments to the point of destroying them, but that it isn’t going to risk a war for a minor client on the doorstep of a major power. In other words, he would have concluded that the U.S. is too willing to resort to force in some cases, but that it isn’t completely reckless in its readiness to go to war, and he could have easily reached that conclusion years before the Syrian civil war began. The fact that the U.S. didn’t attack Syria didn’t really tell Putin anything he wouldn’t have already known from watching U.S. behavior since 1999, and he could have dismissed it as a highly unusual instance of U.S. restraint that had no relevance in other places.
The idea behind linking the two episodes in this way is that U.S. “inaction” (i.e., not attacking other countries) supposedly invites international chaos, but a far more plausible and less tendentious argument is that encouraging political instability and supporting the overthrow of a government backed by a neighboring major power is likely to have dangerous and somewhat unexpected consequences. Not only did Western governments fail to anticipate what these consequences might be, but they proceeded as if there were no danger that things could go very wrong. This is the point Dmitri Simes made in a recent interview:
Now, I understand that we favored the rebels. And I also again have to say that looking at Yanukovych, he clearly was unsavory, and unpopular, and inept, and I can understand why we would not do anything to promote his questionable legitimacy. But we have to realize, that as we were applying this pressure on the Ukrainian political process to promote those we favor, we clearly were rocking the political boat in Ukraine, a country deeply divided, a country with different religions, different histories, different ethnicities. And it was that process of rocking the boat that led to the outcome [we] have seen. That is not to justify what Putin has done, that is not to say that the Russians are entitled to use their troops on the territory of another state. But let me say this: any Russian wrongdoings should not be used as an alibi for the incompetence of the Obama administration. European and American steps that contributed to this unfortunate outcome, and quite remarkably, nobody in this administration even seems to have been thinking about what the consequences of their previous actions could be.
The straightforward explanation is that Western support for destabilizing protests helped to create a degree of political upheaval and a kind of political change that Moscow wasn’t prepared to tolerate any longer. As Simes says, that doesn’t validate or justify the Russian response, but it does a better job of explaining it without having to come up with a roundabout way to lay blame for the situation on the U.S. “failure” to attack another country in the Near East.
Marco Rubio and Tom Cotton expand on Rubio’s earlier list of mostly bad and ineffective proposals for responding to Russia:
Some may argue that these actions are overly provocative and will only encourage Russia to be more aggressive. But provoking Russia is exactly what five years of “reset” has now achieved.
The measures Rubio and Cotton suggest include, among other things, a trade embargo and pushing for Georgian membership in NATO. These are obviously provocative moves, but more to the point they are invitations to Moscow to respond with its own punitive measures. If Germany is unwilling to press ahead with major economic sanctions, that is probably because they have much to lose thanks to their and Europe’s dependence on Russian energy, and Britain is not eager to shut Russian money out of its financial institutions for similar reasons. It is relatively easier for American politicians and pundits to demand economic warfare against Russia, because the U.S. has much less to lose directly from inflicting damage on the Russian economy. Meanwhile, the European governments that have to cooperate in carrying out these punishments will be the ones to suffer the consequences, and that would have deleterious effects on their economies and eventually on ours as well.
Agitating for NATO expansion over five years after the idea should have been abandoned isn’t a show of strength, but a careless gamble that will create new occasions for conflict. If the U.S. needs to reassure existing NATO members of its commitment to them and if it needs to organize a unified allied response, that has to rule out reviving a controversial push for expanding the alliance that many other members of the alliance consider unwise and unrealistic. Furthermore, if there is any chance of getting major European governments to go along with at least some economic sanctions, that isn’t going to be helped by bringing up NATO expansion plans that some of them have previously blocked.
Rubio and Cotton never explain what it is they expect all of this to achieve. If the goal is de-escalation of the current crisis and the prevention of armed conflict, taking actions that are likely to antagonize Moscow and make it harden its position is foolish. While the desire to punish Russia for its actions may be understandable, is there any reason to expect that this will change its behavior for the better? I called Russia’s incursion as “gross overreaction,” and so it was, but it would be very unwise if Western governments imitated that behavior by overreacting in their own response. If the goal is simply to inflict damage on Russia to teach it a lesson and to show “the world that America is not going anywhere” (whatever that is supposed to mean), it is more than likely to backfire and produce more of the same kind of behavior that the U.S. and EU reject. Hard-liners in all countries adhere to some version of the cult of “resolve” that informs so many wrongheaded hawkish arguments here, so we can be reasonably sure that “punishing” Russia will convince Moscow to dig in its heels and take more reckless actions of its own so that it is not perceived as “weak.”
In contrast, Thomas Graham offers some constructive suggestions on how to defuse the crisis and on how to start stabilizing Ukraine. It’s possible that all parties might not be able to reach an agreement that included all of Graham’s proposals, but they seem far more likely to result in a reduction of tensions and the avoidance of conflict than anything provided by the hawkish members of Congress.
Irakly Areshidze and Elena Suhir make a terrible assumption and offer an equally terrible suggestion:
Surrounding Russia with NATO members will not only curb Moscow’s imperialist ambitions, it will also strengthen the cause of democracy inside Russia.
There are a lot of bad ideas for the U.S. and EU response to Russia’s incursion, but the idea that they should rush to expand NATO is one of the very worst. Aside from the fact that NATO won’t and officially is not supposed to bring in new members that have ongoing territorial disputes with their neighbors, advocates for expansion don’t seem to understand that “surrounding Russia with NATO members” is one of the things that makes Russia so hostile to the idea in the first place. It is the fear of being surrounded by an alliance that it still regards as a major threat that has driven much of its opposition to bringing former Soviet republics into the alliance. Western governments have repeatedly failed to anticipate how Russia would react to their plans for incorporating more countries into the alliance, and for a while they could afford to do that because Russia was not prepared to do anything in response. Over the last decade, that changed, but many Westerners remained oblivious to the change. Dragging Ukraine into NATO–and it would probably still have to be dragged in against the wishes of a large part of its population–is just the sort of thing that could trigger the escalation and conflict that everyone should be trying to prevent. One of the worst things that the alliance could do to itself at this point is to undermine its existing security guarantees by extending them to countries that we already know we’re not going to fight to defend. It wouldn’t anyone any favors, and would be more likely to invite the intervention that it is supposed to deter.
P.S. Surrounding Russia with NATO members is more likely to cause the state to become more authoritarian, illiberal, and paranoid, and it would make it much less likely that Russia would undergo peaceful political change to a more pluralistic and liberal order.
Jonathan Tobin repeats a commonplace bit of nonsense:
Lack of credibility in foreign policy cannot be compartmentalized in one region or particular issue. Weakness and irresolution are fungible commodities in international diplomacy.
Those who argue that reputation and credibility matter are depending on strategists to be simple-minded, illogical, and blissfully unaware of recursion. And if Assad is illogical, then calibrating U.S. foreign policy to elicit particular responses from him is pointless. The same goes for other adversaries. No one can know what the North Korean leadership will make of U.S. behavior in Syria. They might think that Obama has no credibility, that he is, in fact, resolute, or that he is driven by other U.S. interests. Whatever conclusion they come to will be driven by their own beliefs and interests.
Paul Pillar comments on the same topic in a recent post:
One of the major flaws in this perspective is that much of import that happens in the world, including much that is violent or disturbing, is not the work of the United States and is not within the power of the United States to prevent. Another major flaw is that there is not nearly as much of a connection between what happens in a situation one place on the globe and how players assess credibility and motivations in a different situation someplace else [bold mine-DL]. Governments simply do not gauge the credibility of other governments that way.
Much more important than any vague global reputation are the specific interests and options involved in whatever is the situation currently at hand [bold mine-DL].
Arguments about the importance of “strength,” “resolve,” and “credibility” frequently hinge on the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. In this case, the argument goes, because Russia’s incursion in Ukraine came after the decision not to attack Syria, the latter must have somehow enabled the former. This takes for granted that a more aggressive Syria policy would have helped deter Russia from acting as it has, but this doesn’t even make superficial sense. Attacking Syria over strenuous Russian objections would have infuriated Moscow, and that would have made it even more likely to take the actions that it has in Ukraine. Insofar as Russia already blames the crisis in Ukraine on Western meddling, Western military intervention in Syria would have increased Russian hostility to “pro-Western” governments in its vicinity and stoked paranoia about Western intentions.
Hawks recite the mantra “weakness is provocative” with religious devotion, but over the last twenty years we know that Moscow has viewed Western shows of “strength” with great alarm. Hawks always assume that other governments act as they do because U.S. “weakness” permits or invites them to do so, but this is impossible to entangle from their general assumption that specific U.S. policies need to be more aggressive across the board. The possibility that other states perceive the U.S. as still being far too meddlesome and intrusive doesn’t occur to them because they are preoccupied with complaining about so-called “retreat.” Despite the fact that Russian action in Ukraine came in direct response to an “advance” by “pro-Western” forces, hawks discount that and look back to the Syrian episode because they think this validates the “retreat” argument. In so doing, they ignore what really seems to be motivating the Kremlin’s decision-making and substitute their own explanation.
On a related note, there have been a number of lazy assertions that the so-called “reset” is somehow at fault in what has been happening. When the “reset” was still going on, it had some modest but real successes, but once the original agenda was exhausted there was very little incentive or political will on either side to keep it going. Judged on its own terms as a means of repairing U.S.-Russian relations from its previous nadir in 2008, the “reset” did what it was supposed to do, but it could not magically change how Russia perceived its interests in the “near abroad” nor could it alter the way that the Kremlin behaved inside Russia. The Libyan war and the way it was conducted certainly soured Russia on further cooperation, especially because of how Russia was persuaded to permit U.N. authorization, and by 2012 the “reset” was essentially over. In its wake, U.S.-Russian relations resumed their dreary course as the U.S. was pursuing a number of goals in Syria and elsewhere that Russia flatly rejected. The U.S. also passed the Magnitsky Act, which the Kremlin saw as poisoning the relationship, and the Snowden affair did quite a bit of damage as well. Then there was the Ukraine crisis itself. Once again, hawks in the West faulted Obama for being insufficiently supportive of the protesters, but as Moscow saw it U.S. and EU involvement was still quite excessive and menacing. Western hawks think Obama has not been “strong” enough on Ukraine, but as far as the Kremlin is concerned both Washington and Brussels have been only too “strong.” The notion that Russia would be behaving noticeably better if not for the “reset” is a fantasy that requires us to ignore everything we’ve seen in U.S.-Russian relations over the last twenty years.