No Contest

Obama gambled that U.S. power would trump Russia's interests in Ukraine. He was wrong.


The Obama administration was clearly taken by surprise when Russia decided to seize Crimea by force. The real question, however, is why Obama and his advisors thought the United States and the European Union could help engineer the ouster of a democratically elected and pro-Russian leader in Ukraine and expect Vladimir Putin to go along with it? This remarkable combination of hubris and naiveté is even more striking when one considers that Washington has few, if any, options to counter Putin’s move.

To be sure, ousted president Viktor Yanukovych was corrupt and incompetent and the United States and the European Union didn’t create the protests that rose up against him. But instead of encouraging the protestors to stand down and wait for unhappy Ukrainians to vote Yanukovych out of office, the European Union and the United States decided to speed up the timetable and tacitly support the anti-Yanukovych forces. When the U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs is on the streets of Kiev handing out pastries to anti-government protestors, it’s a sign that Washington is not exactly neutral. Unfortunately, enthusiastic supporters of "Western" values never stopped to ask themselves what they would do if Russia objected.

There’s plenty of room for finger-pointing and blame casting here, but the taproot of the debacle in Ukraine was a failure to distinguish between power and interests. Power is a useful thing to have in international politics, but any serious student of foreign policy knows that the stronger side does not always win. If it did, the United States would have won in Vietnam, would have persuaded India, Pakistan, and North Korea not to test nuclear weapons, and would have Afghan President Hamid Karzai dancing to our tune. In the real world, however, weaker states often care more about the outcome than stronger states do and are therefore willing to run more risks and incur larger costs to get what they want.

Unfortunately, U.S. leaders have repeatedly lost sight of this fact since the end of the Cold War. Because the United States is so powerful and so secure, it can meddle in lots of places without putting its own security at risk. United States officials tend to think they have the answer to every problem, and they reflexively assume that helping other societies become more like us is always the "right thing to do." Because we’ve become accustomed to our self-appointed role as Leader of the Free World, Washington is quick to proclaim redlines and issue high-minded demands, convinced that others will do its bidding — if it barks loudly enough. 

Unfortunately, America’s remarkably favorable geopolitical position also means that the outcome of many global disputes don’t matter all that much to Washington, and still less to the American people. The result is a paradox: primacy allows the United States to interfere in lots of global disputes, but many of the issues it gets involved in are of secondary importance and not worth much risk, blood, or treasure. Why? Because the United States will be fine no matter how things turn out. It has the power to act almost anywhere, but its vital interests are rarely fully engaged. 

That is certainly the case in Ukraine, a country whose entire economy is about the size of Kentucky’s. Last year, total U.S. trade with Ukraine was a measly $3 billion, less than the city budget of Philadelphia and about .00018 percent of America’s gross domestic product (GDP). Ukraine’s political system has been a mess ever since independence in 1991 and its economy is nearly bankrupt and needs massive outside assistance. It would be nice if Ukraine developed effective political institutions, but neither the security nor prosperity of the United States depend on that happening, either now or in the foreseeable future. Put simply: Ukraine is not an arena on which America’s future depends in the slightest.

For Russia, however, the situation vis-à-vis Ukraine is quite different. Russia is much, much weaker than the United States — in every significant dimension of national power — and its long-term demographic and economic prospects are not bright. That is why any prudent Russian leader would want friendly regimes on its borders and would be sensitive about any area where ethnic Russians are a significant fraction of the population. Ukraine is right next door, there are deep historical ties between the two countries, and ethnic Russians account for about 20 percent of Ukraine’s population and nearly 60 percent of the population in Crimea. Add to that mix Russia’s naval base in Sevastopol and you can see why Putin sees the retention of Russian influence there as a vital interest indeed.

Moreover, Russia has spent the last 20-plus years watching the United States and its European allies expand NATO eastward and deploy ballistic missile defenses there, to boot, with near-total disregard for Russian interests and complaints. Because Americans never see themselves as potential aggressors and haven’t had a great power in their own hemisphere for over a century, they have trouble imagining how these acts looked from Moscow’s vantage point. But any good realist could have told you that Russia would regard these developments as a long-term security challenge. Imagine how Washington would react if a powerful China were one day to cultivate close security ties with Canada or Mexico, and you’ll appreciate Putin’s perspective a bit more.

Not only is Ukraine much more important to Moscow, its geographic proximity made it easy for Putin to act as he did and makes it hard for us to do anything about it. News flash: Ukraine and Russia share a long border, and Crimea is thousands of miles from the United States. Russia may not be a global military power (its defense spending is about one-sixth the size of the U.S. defense budget), but it is strong enough to occupy Crimea. The United States and NATO aren’t going to assemble an expeditionary force to push them out, so don’t expect to see a replay of the 1991 liberation of Kuwait. The bottom line: Putin was never going to see Obama’s warnings as more than just a hollow bluff.

Mind you: I’m not defending Putin’s action or relishing Obama’s discomfiture. No one should take pleasure from this unilateral violation of international law or the likelihood that Ukraine faces more years of political instability and economic hardship. Nor should we neglect the possible fallout from this blunder in other areas — such as the ongoing negotiations with Iran — as the GOP is certain to seize upon this incident to cast doubt on the administration’s entire approach to foreign policy. I just wish someone in the administration had thought this through before they decided to help ease Yanukovych out of power. Did we really think that power politics was no longer relevant in the 21st century, and that the spread of democracy, free markets, rule of law, and all that other good stuff meant that other states were no longer willing to defend their own security interests?

Sadly, this case provides another vivid reminder of why tough-minded realism is a better guide to foreign policy than feckless liberal idealism or neoconservative bluster. Since 1992, the U.S. approach to Russia and Eastern Europe has been guided by the assumption that Western-style democracy was the wave of the future and that the United States could extend its reach eastward and offer security guarantees to almost anyone who wanted them, but without ever facing a serious backlash. Even after the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia revealed the limits to what Moscow would tolerate and what the West could impose, some U.S. leaders continued to think they could draw more former Soviet bloc states into America’s orbit without provoking stiff Russian resistance.

By contrast, realism tells you major powers care a lot about security and are often ruthless in defending vital interests, especially close to home. It recognizes that great powers ignore international law when it gets in their way (as the United States has done repeatedly), and it sees relations between major powers as a ceaseless struggle for position, even when that struggle is waged for essentially defensive reasons. Realists also know that diplomatic contests have no finish line and that every foreign policy initiative inevitably invites a counter-move. It’s for this reason that those responsible for foreign policy need to think two or three moves ahead: "If we take this step, what are other states likely to do and what will our options look like then?"

Nobody in Washington or Brussels seems to have asked that question as they watched (and helped) Ukraine unravel, and that’s why their options today are limited to angry denunciations and symbolic protests. It’s possible that Putin has bitten off more than Russia can comfortably swallow, and the economic costs may prove to be too much for the fragile Russian economy to bear. But great powers are usually willing to suffer when their security is on the line, and that’s likely to be the case here. If you thought the era of power politics was behind us, think again.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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