President Obama stepped up to the podium twenty minutes after the announced time for his talk and gave a short, sharply worded but ultimately vague statement on what looks like a growing and intentional Russian military presence in Crimea.
We shall see how things work out, but at first glance President Putin appears to have stolen yet another march on the sputtering West. As I wrote last week, Putin was under pressure to act quickly and run risks; not for the first time, complacent and unobservant Western leaders underestimated Russian decisiveness and determination to surprise. Washington in particular appears to have been caught flat-footed by Russian moves, and even as Kremlin forces fan out across the restive province, President Obama seemed unsure just what Putin intends.
One can already hear a chorus of people discussing Russia’s Crimean move in the terms people used to describe Hitler’s move into the Rhineland. The Germans are only going into their own back garden, said Britain’s Lord Lothian. George Bernard Shaw told the public that it was like the British moving into Portsmouth. Crimea is historically and culturally more a part of Russia than anything else, we are told. It’s a long way from the United States and what happens there doesn’t really matter very much.
While President Obama is unlikely to take the Bernard Shaw line, he now faces a genuinely difficult moment in the troubled course of his second term foreign policy. Two of the President’s highest goals—progress on nuclear arms control in general and a peaceful end to Iran’s nuclear ambitions—depend in large part on Russia’s willingness to act as an American partner. Just as his Syria strategy (talks at Geneva to prepare a political transition) fell horribly flat when the Russians backed away, his Iran and nuclear strategies would face some very rough sledding if Russia’s promises of help prove hollow.
A key to the President’s foreign policy is that he’s tried to avoid what he dismissively calls ‘geopolitical chess games’. He wants to separate questions like Iran’s drive in Syria from the question of Iran’s nuclear program. If possible, he probably wants to segregate Crimea from what he sees as his broader and more important agenda with Russia.
The question is whether Putin will let him. At AI, our concern has always been that Putin sees the United States as an opponent in a zero sum contest, not a partner in a quest for win-win. Putin sees the American faith in win-win solutions as a long line of Russian negotiators back to czarist times have done: as an irritating though occasionally useful blend of hypocrisy and fecklessness. We worry that Putin sees Obama’s effort to keep bargaining in good faith over Syria, Iran and now perhaps Crimea as a weakness to be exploited, not a foundation for mutual trust and cooperation. Putin, we suspect, wants President Obama’s prestige damaged, and for American foreign policy to endure one setback and humiliation after another. He will happily play Lucy as long as President Obama is willing to play Charlie Brown and run at the football Lucy holds.
At the moment, Putin is doing very well in Ukraine. Clueless arrogance by both US and EU policymakers gave Putin a heaven-sent opportunity to block a worst-case scenario for Russia in Ukraine last fall. Then-President Yanukovych, a man of the east long associated with Russia, was moving toward signing an Association Agreement with the EU that offered a historic opportunity for a united Ukraine to move firmly west. But both Washington and the EU underestimated Putin’s determination to block that outcome and failed to ensure that Yanukovych went all the way. Putin seized the opportunity and with a combination of official and perhaps unofficial, more personal incentives, was able to keep Yanukovych from finalizing the deal.
Yanukovych’s obvious yielding to Moscow’s blandishments touched off the unrest that would ultimately bring him down and set the current crisis afoot. When pro-European street protesters overthrew Yanukovych, there were plenty of Western analysts (some, unfortunately, working for governments) who drew the comforting but deeply false conclusion that these events represented a triumph of the West. Instead, the revolution (Kiev’s third since 1990), unleashed the chaos that gave Putin his chance for his Crimean gambit. Now Putin seems to be seizing the most important military assets Russia holds in the country and can reasonably hope to increase Russia’s influence throughout the country as a weak government struggles with intractable problems. Meanwhile, he is probably licking his chops over the unpalatable choices Western statesmen now face. If the West doesn’t ship billions of dollars to Ukraine, the current government will fail and national unity will fray. If the West comes across with the dough, Putin has a number possibilities for working the situation to his benefit. He can, for example, raise the natural gas price to a Ukraine flush with Western aid dollars, or demand repayment of Ukraine’s existing debts to Moscow, transferring Western aid money into Russian pockets.
We’ll have to see, but without a sharp turn, neither President Obama nor his chief European partner Chancellor Merkel will do anything but seek to defuse the crisis as quickly and painlessly as possible. If Putin offers a face-saving solution that leaves him with some visible gains in exchange for some mostly cosmetic concessions, they will have a hard time saying no even as they wrestle with the ugly financial and political arithmetic that a Ukrainian bailout involves.
If that is how this crisis winds up, the West, the United States and President Obama himself will all have been significantly undermined, and both President Putin and Russia will emerge looking more potent than before. This is exactly what Putin wants, and if he succeeds it will feed his contempt for Western leaders and encourage him to look elsewhere for new surprises and new wins.
None of this should blind us to the sterility of Putin’s foreign policy agenda. Russia cannot recreate the old Soviet Union; it is so poor that it cannot afford the cost of carrying the weak republics that once formed the USSR. 200 years ago, Napoleon was fighting one of his most brilliant campaigns against the allied armies invading Paris. The stupidity of his opponents and his own genius allowed Napoleon to rack up win after win, but his armies were too small and his country too weary for these battlefield triumphs to change the course of fate. Robert E. Lee’s brilliant generalship couldn’t offset the North’s crushing superiority as the Civil War ground towards its close. Putin’s battle with history seems equally fated, but he can do a lot of damage as he rages against the dying of the light.
Jimmy Carter’s policy toward the Soviet Union turned 180 degrees when the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan convinced him that Brezhnev wanted to play zero sum, not win-win. Judging from his speech this afternoon, President Obama still hopes to be spared such a turnaround and in any case he (rightly) resists the idea that this is somehow a return to the Cold War. Charlie Brown would rather take another run at the football than risk an open quarrel with Lucy; we will see how well that works out.