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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 […]
Robert Gates 2

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, 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 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, “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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