Don’t Poke the Russian Bear

Putin is a bully but he’s not insane, and escalating a conflict with Moscow can only make things worse.


American policymakers don’t get it; the politicians don’t get it; Fox News certainly doesn’t get it; the advocates for various flavors and colors of democracy don’t get it. And in not getting it, they are pushing the United States down the road to confrontation with Russia.

It’s not about democracy. It’s not about annexation. It’s not about aggression or a new Munich. It’s not about a return to the Cold War. It’s about centuries-old Russian paranoia about the states on its borders and what Moscow think the Europeans, the Chinese, or the Americans are up to in its near abroad.

The Ukraine crisis, at its heart, is about the realities of the interstate system, which has only been around for more than 400 years, particularly in the Eurasian region. But a lot of people seem to have an emotional investment in a different answer than reality.

The neo-con buccaneers are invested in making Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Crimea part of a meta-critique of Barack Obama’s foreign policy. Take Stephen Blank of the American Foreign Policy Council, asserting on the basis of no evidence at all that “clearly, Russia has acted because its leaders believe that the Obama administration and Western allies are irresolute, weak and need Russia more than it needs them.”

Then there’s Sen. John McCain, who never misses an opportunity to slam the president, or to recommend bluster in foreign policy, saying — in the same breath — that Putin is to blame for Crimea but that Obama’s foreign policy is really to blame because it “has fed a perception that the United States is weak, and to people like Mr. Putin, weakness is provocative.”

Or Sen. James Inhofe, the ranking minority member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, who’s boldly proposed that the United States send F-22 fighter jets to Poland and Aegis missile interceptor-laden ships to the Baltic to show toughness.

Even Condoleezza Rice, who surely knows better as a Russia scholar, argues that events like Putin’s invasion of Crimea “have come due to signals that we are exhausted and disinterested.”

Come on, folks. Rice, Inhofe, McCain are some of the people who brought us that notoriously successful U.S. military intervention in Iraq. How’s that democracy and regional stability thing working out for ya? There’s not a lot of street cred here about how to handle international tensions.

The hard, international reality here is that Russia cares, a lot, about what happens on its periphery. There’s no mystery here; the precedent goes back hundreds of years. And it is not a pretty form of caring, and never has been. From the days of the czars, this has involved invasions, occupations, absorptions, corruption, and power plays — all the nice, little things great powers like to do on their peripheries.

Moscow isn’t trying to start a new Cold War, either. They’re making sure the states right around them are friendly, whatever their form of government. So it serves little purpose talking about the Sudetenland or standing up to Hitler. Putin is a bully, but he is not an insane, genocidal dictator engaged in an ideological search for “lebensraum.” Plus, I get very little sense here of “today Kiev; tomorrow Budapest” emanating from Moscow, but a lot of paranoia about U.S. involvement in the coup d’état in Ukraine and fears of NATO expansion. Of course, an opportunistic grab for a piece of land that used to be part of Russia is a bold move, but it’s not tanks streaming across the Fulda Gap.

It’s also not about the West (that archaic term the media still likes to use, though the reality of “a West” disappeared in 1989, if not before) coming to the support of a helpless little democracy. Ukraine is not a shiny, emerging democracy — it is a badly-divided, poorly-run country. Its economy has been limping or failing for years and corruption is rampant, even among the supporters of someone like Yulia Tymoshenko, whom Inhofe has been gussying up for several years as a heroine of democracy.

It’s not about NATO, either. Ukraine is not a NATO ally for the very good reason that even supporters of expanding NATO recognize — it is right next door to Russia with a substantial Russian population, many of whom feel a closer connection to the old motherland than to Ukraine’s teetering government. John Mearsheimer is right: Ukraine is a buffer state between Russia and Europe. About the most provocative thing to do today would be to rush a big supply of arms to Kiev, with trainers and consultants, preparing for war with Russia.

The reality here is that this is a tough assertion by Putin of what Russia will not accept with respect to U.S. and European influence in a strategic partner country. Call it paranoid, aggressive, nasty — call it what you like, but there it is.

If you want a touchstone for how events in Ukraine and a muscular response might be seen, go back roughly 190 years in American history, when a president laid down a doctrine that warned Europeans not to try to create new colonies in the Western Hemisphere. The United States enforced the Monroe Doctrine and policed its neighborhood with a war on Mexico, pressures on Canada, interventions in Cuba, the taking of Puerto Rico, and subsequent endless interventions in Haiti, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Chile, tiny Grenada, and the list goes on. If the idea of Russians sending military assistance to Cuba makes your blood boil, you get the idea.

This historical recital has nothing to do with that old red herring about “moral equivalency.” That metaphor should have been trashed with the end of the Cold War. It has to do with security and the assertion by a large power of what it sees as its regional rights. Actions will be taken when threats and risks are detected. And they will not be taken with kindness and love; generally, they happen through covert or overt uses of military force.

Realistically, there is very little the United States, or its European allies, can do about Crimean independence now, or Russia’s power play. I would love to see Putin gone and a true legislature in Moscow, instead of the puppet one there today. I would love to see Russian crowds resisting their leaders’ military aggression — and prevailing. And I am surely not alone in saying that I would love to see that strand of Russian history that embraces Europe reassert itself, leading to greater cooperation and integration across Eurasia as a broader zone of peace and economic harmony. But it ain’t gonna happen tomorrow.

Those who would rush America into a military confrontation with Moscow over Crimea have to explain why they think Putin would back down, especially if we escalated this conflict. Sanctions and diplomacy are the right response, and don’t hold out for a sudden withdrawal of Russian forces or the outbreak of accountable democracy in Kiev. Sometimes we have to live with the world as it is, not the way we want it to be, even if it is ugly.

Gordon Adams is a professor of international relations at American University's School of International Service and is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center. From 1993 to 1997, he was the senior White House budget official for national security. Twitter: @GAdams1941

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