Syria and Ukraine
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.