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Russia’s Blunder Needs a Realist’s Response

It is amazing to find the Obama administration, the old George W. Bush foreign-policy hands, and the foreign-policy establishment all generally shocked at Vladimir Putin’s aggressiveness in manipulating Crimea’s breakaway from Ukraine and incorporation into Russia. Putin is restarting the Cold War, they cry. Why would he do such a thing? He is either evil or crazy.

Actually, this should have been anticipated. Who says so? The last Republican secretary of defense—for President Bush and later for Barack Obama—says so, and he said it long before the troops moved in.

By happenstance, after an earlier quick-read of Robert Gates’s Duty [1], I happened to be re-reading his book closely during the present crisis and came upon the following passage, in which Gates is reflecting back to the Bush administration:

What we did not realize then was that the seeds of future trouble were already sprouting. There were early stirrings of future great power rivalry and friction. In Russia, resentment and bitterness were taking root as a result of economic chaos and corruption that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union, as well as the incorporation of much of the old Warsaw Pact into NATO by 2000. No Russian was more angered than Vladimir Putin, who would later say that the end of the Soviet Union was the worst geopolitical event of the twentieth century …

Meanwhile other nations increasingly resented our singular dominance and our growing penchant for telling others how to behave, at home and abroad. The end of the Soviet threat also ended the compelling reasons for many countries to automatically align with the United States or do our bidding for their own protection. Other nations looked for opportunities to inhibit our seeming complete freedom and determination to shape the world as we saw fit. In short, our moment alone in the sun, and the arrogance with which we conducted ourselves in the 1990s and beyond as the sole surviving superpower caused widespread resentment … rekindled and exacerbated by President Bush’s “You are either with us or against us” strategy as we launched the war on terror … The invasion of Iraq … Abu Ghraib … Guantanamo and “enhanced interrogations” all fueled further anti-American feeling.

The average American would be shocked that so much of the world looks at the U.S. in this manner. We are the good guys. We always act with the best motives. We want freedom, democracy, and prosperity for all. We sacrifice for the rest of the world: look at the toll of lives, wounds, and treasure from Afghanistan and Iraq alone. How could the rest of the world be so ungrateful?

It is always helpful to see the world from another point of view. It is clear Putin has a very different one, as he spelled out in detail in his 40-minute March 18 speech announcing that he would accept the result of the Crimean plebiscite to leave Ukraine and rejoin Russia. He started his remarks 1,000 years ago with the baptism of his namesake Vladimir in Crimea and the conversion of Russia to Christianity. Catherine the Great incorporated Crimea into Russia in 1783, before the U.S. Constitution, and it remained Russian for 170 years. Putin spoke of Russians fighting the British and French in the 19th-century Crimean War. He mourned the thousands of Russians who fought the Nazis there, and all the war dead, civilian and military. He criticized the Ukrainian-born Nikita Khrushchev for transferring Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 at his own “personal initiative” and complained Russia should have gotten back the peninsula when the Soviet Union expired in 1991. It was not surprising that 90 percent turned out and 93 percent voted to join Russia.

Putin justified his annexation in light of the region’s history, recent Western practice in Yugoslavia, German re-unification, and especially the Kosovo “precedent”—where that Albanian-majority region held a referendum and split from Serbia at Western insistence—and the principle of democratic self-determination. Putin agreed that the Ukrainian demonstrations were justified, but he claimed they were manipulated by proto-Nazis, anti-Semites, and Russophobes (the next day an anti-Semitic Svoboda party mob assaulted Kiev’s First National TV director for being too pro-Russian) who then violently overthrew a validly elected Ukrainian president. He disclaimed interest in other Ukrainian regions—although he had said the same about Crimea. “Our Western partners have crossed a line. We have every reason to think that the notorious policy of confining Russia, pursued in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries continues today.”

The West, led by the U.S., “believe they’ve been entrusted by God to decide the fate of other people” was his conclusion. Is this a totally irrational position? It is well to remember that George W. Bush came into office in 2001 promising a “more humble” foreign policy for the United States.

As Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution noted [2] concerning the immediate crisis that promoted the demonstrations, it was Europe that presented Ukraine with the “either-or proposition” of joining the European Union or the trade group backed by Russia. Why not both? “We forced [Russia’s] hand whether we intended or not.” Certainly, as Secretary Gates noted, surrounding Russia with NATO members was a mistake—as many argued at the time—and only inflamed Russian pride and sense of threat. And as International Institute for Strategic Studies senior scholar Samuel Charap told the Washington Post [3], “whether the sense of betrayal is rational or not” is not the issue. “The question is: Do they believe it or not?” If this is “what influences the decision-making climate, we have to deal with it.”

While President Putin may seem to be riding high about now, he has made a terrible economic mistake. Ukraine already subsidizes Crimea, and Russian parliamentarian Leonid Slutsky estimates it will cost his country $3 billion more in normal expenditures per year and perhaps $20 billion over the next three years, “maybe even $30 billion,” although he thinks it is worth the cost psychologically. But a struggling Russia cannot afford it. Russian control of any more of economically bankrupt Ukraine would be an unbearable burden. Removing Crimea from Ukraine actually strengthens it. It saves Ukraine paying the subsidies and more importantly removes 2,000,000 Russian-speaking citizens who normally vote against Western Ukrainian candidates, making it more likely for an anti-Russia majority to prevail for the foreseeable future.

It is clear that Putin has gone further than cool rationality would require. He could have left Crimea within Ukraine and saved billions of dollars in subsidies, and he could still have gained political control over a more autonomous Crimea. He still would have won an enormous psychological victory if he had. Paradoxically, the fact that Putin’s incorporation of Crimea weakens Russia makes him more dangerous. He still has nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them no matter how economically backward Russia becomes. This is a situation that demands humility and realism on the part of America and the West.

Where is Robert Gates when we need him?

Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies and was Ronald Reagan’s director of the Office of Personnel Management during his first term.

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#1 Comment By Puller58 On March 21, 2014 @ 6:54 am

Realism from our current government isn’t possible. The President practices Establishment dog and pony showmanship, and the Congress puts on political theater for the benefit of the donor class.

#2 Comment By Philip Giraldi On March 21, 2014 @ 7:49 am

If Russia finds it difficult to digest Crimea in terms of costs that it something Putin will have to live with, but Gates is far from a prophet when he discusses Russia. He famously got the Russian estimate wrong when he headed CIA analysis and is prone to see things in terms of great power realpolitik. I rather suspect Putin knows his limitations and will do what he can do to reconstitute a zone of influence around Russia, but he will not go beyond that. He certainly has been a responsible player in dealing with both Iran and Syria, which leads to Gates’ second point about American hubris. His appreciation of that national character flaw is far from unique and he sounds a lot like Ron Paul.

#3 Comment By Paul On March 21, 2014 @ 8:07 am

Good article. In assessing Putin’s rationality in annexing Crimea, it is asserted that “he could still have gained political control over a more autonomous Crimea.” I wonder whether this overlooks the instability of the current Kiev government; there’s no guarantee it will not fall as the result of further chaos, and no telling what might replace it. Even in its weak state and without a democratic mandate, the Kiev government is making overtures to the EU and NATO. Putin may have been thinking that all bets are off, and that he could wake up one day with a scenario such as maidan-style protest or a coup in Crimea, or–what loud voices in the Western media are advocating–with NATO and Kiev having taken decisive steps toward expanding NATO borders to encompass Sevastopol. Hence the line in his speech that he would rather that NATO be Russia’s guests in Crimea than for Russia to be NATO’s guests. Currently Putin sees no legitimate government in Kiev with which he can deal, but rather a belligerent, unelected government making ill-judged decisions (like the anti-Russian language law). In making his rational judgment, Putin may have thought he’d rather risk the economic and diplomatic disadvantages of annexing Crimea than face the possibility of having to claw it back.

#4 Comment By Bertek On March 21, 2014 @ 9:05 am

Russia disengaging from the West isn’t a blunder, it is wisdom and self preservation.

The West is a dead man walking, they have de-industrialized via globalism and have virtually committed national suicide with their open border policies with Africa and Latin America.

In 30 years (or less) the West will be just “another country”, like Brazil or Zimbabwe.

Russia will still be Russia, and survive.

#5 Comment By Cooper On March 21, 2014 @ 9:15 am

“It is always helpful to see the world from another point of view.”

Not always. Sometimes one is the only just man at a lynching and trying to understand the other guy is a waste of time.

But it is always helpful to remember that those who can’t see the world from another point of view are called “psychopaths”.

#6 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 21, 2014 @ 9:19 am

” In short, our moment alone in the sun, and the arrogance with which we conducted ourselves in the 1990s and beyond as the sole surviving superpower caused widespread resentment … rekindled and exacerbated by President Bush’s “You are either with us or against us” strategy as we launched the war on terror … The invasion of Iraq … Abu Ghraib … Guantanamo and “enhanced interrogations” all fueled further anti-American feeling”

So if I understand SecDef’s take on our relational dynamics it was not our behavior, but our attitude about our behavior.

This seems a very shallow read of the rest of the world. Irritation about one’s comportment certainly plays a role in international relations.

But I suspect strategic and mistakes and attempting to defend them as though they were not is a far larger problem.

#7 Comment By philadelphialawyer On March 21, 2014 @ 11:56 am

Still not seeing the “blunder.”

What was to stop the Ukrainian nationalists in Kiev from abrogating the basing treaty, and sending troops into Crimea, if Putin had been “cool” and done nothing? What could Putin do then, short of war, to protect the Black Sea fleet and its base? And, as poster Paul says, what would then stop the Kievan nationalists from trying to join NATO, in which case the base would fall into the hands of an aggressive military alliance aimed at Russia. And how would Putin exercize “political control” over Crimea once it was occupied by Ukrainian troops? The hypothetical, counterfactual scenario assumes a rational, peaceful, co operative Ukrainian government. That’s a pretty big assumption, given that it is composed of a group that just overthrew an elected government, contains extremist nationalist elements, and is seething with anti-Russian animus. And we also know that there are powerful forces in the West who want to bring the Ukraine into NATO.

A “psychological victory,” however “enormous,” would not make up for the military and political damage of loosing Sevastopol to the Ukraine government, nor the loss of prestige.

As for the economic costs (the “terrible economic mistake”), they sound exaggerated, and, in any event, if Ukraine could afford them, so can Russia.

Again, as Paul puts it, there were economic and diplomatic disadvantages to Putin’s actions, but he may have seen the security and political disadvantages of not taking that action as worse. An action is not a “blunder,” no matter how many times it is called such, when it was the result of calculation and that calculation cannot be shown to be clearly wrong.

On the broader issue, Putin said that The West, led by the U.S., “believe they’ve been entrusted by God to decide the fate of other people.” I’m not sure about the West generally (at least since the end of formal European colonialism), but, with regard to the USA, that is not only true, but it is considered within the USA to be unassailably correct. US politicians must, if they have any national ambitions, subscribe to the notion of “American Exceptionalism.” Moreover, it is not enough to consider AE to mean that the US, like every other country, has unique facets, a unique past, and so forth. No, it must mean that the US has been chosen (by God, or, at least, by fate and history) to be the leader of the world, that the USA is the “indispensable nation,” and that it has, as its inescapable duty and destiny, to play the role of guardian of all that is right (as it determines), regardless of national borders, international law and so on. And that the bulk of US history since at least WWI consists of the USA selflessly and without a thought of its own interests (indeed, often counter to them) doing just that, ie “saving” other countries from tyranny, fascism, communism, generic dictatorship, human rights violations, barbarism, poverty, ignorance, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and so forth. But even that is not the end of it, no, the dogma also insists that the USA has, internally, found the perfect way to order human society, and that every other nation not only should, but must, attempt to mirror US political, social, and economic institutions and policy.

In particular, most recently, with regard to Russia, the USA has discovered GLBT rights. As a liberal, I am actually supportive of those rights. But it seems to me a bit much for the USA to insist that rights that were only proclaimed the day before yesterday at home are now a sine quo non of decent government everywhere. So much so, that any government that does not fully recognize them “shouldn’t” be treated as a full member of the international community, has no business hosting the Olympic games, has a “horrible” human rights record, and so on. And that if a punk rock band, protesting the lack of GLBT rights, trespasses and disturbs a church service to make its point, that it must get away with it scots free, when that would not be the case even here.

In a way, this is only a trivial example. But it shows how the USA and its God-ordained mission work. If the USA is now for GLBT rights, so must the rest of the world. If the USA has declared a “war on drugs,” woe be it to any Latin American government which does not follow suit, or does not do so with sufficient enthusiasm. And so on.

It is not merely that it appears to the rest of the world that the USA desires complete control, that is the reality. The author of the article is partly right, in that he points out some of the examples, and then demonstrates that these are what critics of the USA have in mind when they talk about hegemony and worse. But, in my view, it goes beyond that. It goes beyond that description being merely not “irrational,” being merely what is “believed” in some circles overseas.

I think Gates is closer to the truth…with our full spectrum dominance, our enormous, globe spanning military, our invasions, our disregard for international law and for simple decency, our “determination to shape the world as we see fit,” our “arrogance,”, and our “you’re with us or against us” posturing, and the lack of a Soviet Union to fear, the rest of the world not only has had quite enough of the USA, but it has more than sufficient reason for taking that view. It is not simply a matter of perception, of what “they” “believe,” it is a matter of what is.

#8 Comment By Mike Ehling On March 21, 2014 @ 12:42 pm

It is not at all clear “that Putin has gone further than cool rationality would require.” Quite the contrary, Russian control of Crimea is essential to its access to the Black Sea. It was the US and the EU who provoked the current crisis by its support of rioters against the lawfully elected Yanukovich government.

Putin could not risk US/NATO control of Russia’s outlet to the Black see any more than Lincoln could risk Confederate/British control of the Union’s access to the Gulf of Mexico through the lower Mississippi River and the port of New Orleans (which is what the US Civil War was all about).

Putin has actually been patient for quite some years with the political instability in Ukraine — a lot more patient than Reagan was with Grenada. Let’s just hope that the Baltic states can learn a lesson from this and act toward Russia the way Finland (very successfully and without losing its freedoms or national independence) acted toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

#9 Comment By Paul On March 21, 2014 @ 1:30 pm

With regard to the instability of the Kiev government, it’s curious that Ukraine seems to have switched overnight from being a President-led country to Prime Minister-led. Yanukovych was President, but Yatsenyuk is Prime Minister, and the current “President”, Turchynov, seems to be ignored (at least in the West). It seems they’re just making it up as they go along. Yatsenyuk is the one now visiting Obama and signing agreements with the EU in Brussels. He has said, “For the sole purpose of preserving the unity of Ukraine, the issue of (Ukraine’s) accession to NATO is not on the agenda.” But he strikes me as the sort of person who would like to put NATO on the agenda if he had the chance.

#10 Comment By Bill Jones On March 24, 2014 @ 8:00 pm

Bertek is correct.
“Russia disengaging from the West isn’t a blunder, it is wisdom and self preservation.”

The Blunder is the ever expanding foreign policy adventures of the neo-con filth.

They have bankrupted America.

#11 Pingback By Some observations on the Ukraine crisis | Notes from underground On March 25, 2014 @ 11:26 am

[…] when it comes to Putin, I found some interesting comments in an unexpected place: Russia’s Blunder Needs a Realist’s Response | The American Conservative. Hat-tip to my blogging friend Terry Cowan, who drew my attention to it, and recommended it […]

#12 Comment By Melanie On March 26, 2014 @ 10:23 am

Great read. Bottom line: Putin is looking to expand and has nukes. Meanwhile we sit back and wag a finger.


#13 Comment By axbucxdu On April 6, 2014 @ 6:30 pm

Anyone that considers “American Exceptionalism” both necessary and sufficient to a pol’s national ambitions is knowingly pushing something that’s past its Sell By date, and as a result is really only preaching to the choir, that is, their choir.