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.