Sorry, Putin Isn’t Crazy
Why Russians have good reason to suspect the West's motives in Ukraine.
While discussing the Russian invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula on CBS’s Face The Nation recently, Secretary of State John Kerry remarked: "You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th-century fashion by invading another country on [a] completely trumped-up pretext." He also warned that President Obama "has all options on the table" — including the use of military force, though he said that option would "not serve the world well." In speaking with Obama last weekend, German chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly opined that the Russian head of state may have lost "touch with reality" and appeared to be "living in another world." Obama himself has accused Putin of viewing the Ukraine crisis as part of a "some Cold War chessboard," and of "keeping one foot in the old [Cold War] ways of doing business."
Criticisms of Russia’s military action have been coming from all quarters. Nonetheless, these comments by western leaders merit special examination. They seem to be based on a shared conclusion: In taking over the Crimea, President Putin has behaved irrationally, operating on a set of erroneous, perhaps even crazed, assumptions. Chief among these is the notion that the West, and the United States in particular, backed the "Euromaidan" street protests that recently overthrew Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Farfetched as it may seem to Western leaders, a recent Levada Center opinion poll shows that a plurality — 43 percent — of Putin’s compatriots agree with him.
It should surprise no one that Putin has concluded that the United States was behind the Euromaidan protests. He famously blamed the 2011 eruption of opposition demonstrations in Russia on meddling American NGOs. Moreover, in February, Victoria Nuland, a State Department official, declared that since Ukraine achieved independence in 1991, the U.S. government has spent more than $5 billion to "assist" it in building "democratic skills," "civic participation," and "good governance." Aid has been provided, as far as is known, under the Freedom Support Act passed in 1992 to help stimulate former Soviet economies using American funds. But to Russians, Nuland’s words have been interpreted to mean that the United States fomented the Euromaidan, paid its participants, and instructed them in the use of weapons. "Western instructors" Putin said last week in a press conference, did their best to train the Euromaidan’s "armed brigades."
In suspecting the United States’ involvement in the Euromaidan, has Putin taken leave of his senses? Kerry and Merkel seem to have forgotten, or chosen to ignore, the numerous aggressive steps the United States has taken since the end of the Cold War to reduce Russia’s influence, to say nothing of American-backed military interventions and invasions across the globe. As the nuclear standoff between the two superpowers waned, the West’s most powerful military alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), has expanded three times, despite President George H. W. Bush’s apparent promise to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev not to enlarge the group. NATO inducted the Baltic states in 2004, and laid the groundwork for the membership of Ukraine and Georgia. Yanukovych scuppered such plans relating to Ukraine in 2010, but deputies of the new Ukrainian parliament have just introduced a bill proposing the country again seek membership.
The Soviet Union is no more, but the entity created specifically to counter its military might thrives, as has the Pentagon’s budget, which increased relentlessly until 2011, topping $700 billion. Furthermore, in 2002, the United States withdrew unilaterally from its treaty with Moscow banning anti-ballistic missiles and plans to station such missiles in Eastern Europe. The conclusion Putin has drawn? The United States is bent on maintaining and increasing its hegemony — at Russia’s expense.
Are invasions a "19th-century" means of dealing with unpalatable regimes? A survey of post-Cold War history gives reason to think otherwise. In 1994 the U.S. military embargoed Haiti and sent troops in to reinstate ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. That same year, President Clinton began deploying the military (under NATO’s aegis) in the Balkans in operations that culminated in 1999 with a 78-day bombing campaign against Serbia that led to the secession of Kosovo and, eventually, to the imprisonment and extradition (to The Hague) of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. In 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan, drove the Taliban from power, and oversaw the election of President Hamid Karzai. Two years later, the George W. Bush administration orchestrated a "Coalition of the Willing" to invade Iraq and depose President Saddam Hussein, whom it eventually handed over to the Iraqi government for trial and execution. The Iraq War’s casus belli — weapons of mass destruction — was never found. (If there ever was a "trumped-up pretext," that was it.) In 2011, under the guise of enforcing a no-fly zone in Libya, the United States provided critical military support to Western coalition forces in Operation Odyssey Dawn, which ended with the overthrow, hunting down, and brutal extrajudicial execution of Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi.
Far from being "19th-century" behavior, bombing, invading, and toppling regimes remain options the United States has been willing to deploy against its adversaries. Qaddafi’s execution in particular is known to have disturbed Putin. In 2011, Putin repeatedly and angrily denounced NATO for using the no-fly zone it imposed on Libya as a pretext for allowing Qaddafi’s killing. A similar fate may have awaited Yanukovych had he not managed to flee to Russia. Swift Western recognition of Ukraine’s new interim government, which came to power via mass demonstrations after Yanukovych had ceded to opposition demands for new parliamentary and presidential elections (in which he surely faced defeat), can only have reinforced Putin’s conviction that not only was the United States working to undermine his allies, it even sanctions regime change that might threaten his own physical survival.
The West, and especially the United States, needs to acknowledge that the invasions and changes of regime they have carried out have done nothing to dispel notions that they seek world hegemony, and have convinced Putin that he is locked in a struggle not only for Russian dominance in its near-abroad, but for the future of his government — and even, possibly, for his life. They have targeted authoritarian rulers in the past, and suspecting them of doing so now makes eminent sense; Putin is taking history’s lesson to heart. This is no mere call for a reexamination of the U.S. history of robust interventions across the globe, interventions of which the Russian leader is no doubt a student. President Obama and his hectoring Secretary of State should take as a given the rank cynicism these interventions have long generated outside America’s borders and formulate their addresses — and policies — to take it into account.
It would also behoove Obama in particular to come clean to the American people and fess up to what has become painfully obvious during his two terms: there are problems abroad, bloody and tragic as they may be, that the United States simply cannot solve through military intervention or otherwise. It has little leverage to counter Russian influence in Ukraine or dislodge Russian forces from the Crimea. The Cold War is over, to be sure, but the "chessboard" on which Russia and the United States play is much reduced — reduced, in fact, to Russia’s back yard. Putin can be expected to care what happens there and work hard to steer events in his country’s favor. And Putin is not the only one to see responses to crises as plays on a "chessboard." If Obama owns up to this, he might well end up averting a potentially catastrophic challenge match.