I found out about the downing of Malaysian Airlines 17 from a Russian colleague, Vladislav Inozemtsev, offering condolences to his American associates in a multi-addressed email for the loss of American lives. I had been out in the yard pulling ivy for a couple hours. You go out on a beautiful day to get a little exercise and do a horticultural good deed, and look what happens? What is the world coming to?
Well, it is certainly a different world today than it was the last time Russian arms were used to deliberately shoot down a crowded aircraft. That was on September 1, 1983, when Soviet jets shot down KAL 007 over eastern Siberia when the plane strayed into Soviet airspace. All 269 people aboard died. (I’ll never forget this because that same day Scoop Jackson, for whom I had proudly, if briefly, worked and with whom I was still in touch, died suddenly of a heart attack; whether he died because of the shock of that evil deed or not we’ll never know for sure.)
Then, uniformed Soviet soldiers shot down what they knew was a civilian airliner. Today un-uniformed thugs shot down what they apparently thought was a Ukrainian military transport plane—so the initial reports suggest. But you’ve got to be very poorly trained to mistake a Boeing commercial jet with an Antonov military aircraft. Or you have to have essentially no chain of command or just not care, or both. The point: The human agents who shot down KAL 007 in 1983 were in a chain of professional military command working directly for the political leaders of a strong state, and the human agents who shot down MaH 17 today were in no obvious chain of military command and were working indirectly for the decision-makers of a weak state: today’s Russia.
Another difference is that if in 1983 a well-known economics professor at a prominent Russian university had dared criticize his own government before an international audience, he could not have done it in the Russian media and he would have been in deep trouble had he done it in any media. But Slava and others can write pretty much what they want in any press so long as they don’t tread on private bank accounts and related highly theoretical felonies, and thrive well enough to do it again the next week and the next month. (So far, anyway.) So not only is Russia a much weaker state than was the Soviet Union thirty years ago, it is also a much less repressive state lording over an increasingly less passive or cowed citizenry.
Hence, those who think that what has happened is “Cold War”-like in provenance, requiring a muscular Cold War-like response from the United States, are wrong. That’s a lazy would-be lesson blocking the view of a more useful and important one. The most telling thing we ought to learn from today’s tragedy is that weak and weakening states with what are in their own estimation red-line defined defensive interests are prone to risk-taking, lack of executive function, poor control over proxies, and to having a notion that normal, common-sense morality is a luxury they cannot afford to indulge.
There are generic reasons why many states are weaker today than they were three, four, and more decades ago. These reasons affect democratic and liberal states as well as authoritarian and illiberal ones; they also make states that had achieved Weberian levels of impersonal and institutionalized authority more prone to decay, division and dysfunctionality, and they tend to make those that never achieved it in the first place—probably the majority of the UN’s 192 members—prone to multiple outbreaks of political violence and outright collapse. (I discuss some of these reasons in an essay to be published in the next issue of the magazine, the September/October issue). In other words, what has happened does appear to align with a larger trend in international society and politics, but it’s got nothing to do with any return to the Cold War.
Chances are that the people who are plying “Cold War” rhetoric now tend to be those who think the Obama Administration has been jelly-bellied about the seizure of Crimea and the attempt to, if not suborn eastern Ukraine or all of Ukraine, then at least to invest in enough mayhem potential to prevent any Ukrainian government from joining the European Union or, worse, NATO. It’s too easy to accuse the Administration of being risk-averse here; after all, it’s been risk-averse everywhere. U.S. foreign policy for years now has been akin to a duck-and-cover drill. Some people justify that basic approach on this or that ground, sometimes honestly and sometimes for more or less naked partisan reasons, and others decry it for the same tumble of motives, but the Ukraine portfolio is nothing special. Whether the arrow stings the eye or ear of the beholder depends on the critic’s theory of the case concerning Russian policy in Ukraine.
Some believe the Russian government has maximalist goals: not just to subvert Ukraine and bring it back into a subordinate imperial relationship with Russia, even formally, but by so doing call expanded NATO’s bluff and destroy the Western alliance system in the process—that or err in the direction of catalyzing a nuclear war. I rolled out such scenarios myself some months ago, which is a normal part of assessing pulse-quickening behavior like the Russian seizure of Crimea and where it can lead. But I and most others concluded that whatever Mr. Putin wanted in his heartless void of heartless voids, he wasn’t irresponsible enough to try for the brass ring. Too dangerous; too likely to cause Europeans to actually locate their backbones.
My view is that the European Union, by forcing the former Ukrainian government into a thumbs-up/thumbs-down choice over an association with the EU, did a very stupid thing, and having done so still failed to understand the nature of its own stupidity. The former Ukrainian president was forced to make a choice he could not make without shattering his country’s very fragile modus vivendi. He tried really, really hard not to make it therefore, but even that in the end didn’t work.
We all know what happened next, and my view is that the Russian government has sought in the main a veto over the possibility that Ukraine would align with any Western organization whose basic characteristics include a high regard for democracy, respect for the political rights of minorities (toleration, we call it), and a concern for broad-based prosperity dependent on the generation of real economic growth. The reason is that all these characteristics threaten the Russian political status quo and what makes its leaders broadly popular among the narrowly hewn regime constituencies that really matter. Clearly, no good can come of having a large Slavic-speaking exemplar of all these dangerous characteristics right on your western border.
How to acquire this veto? If you know your own weaknesses, and certainly Mr. Putin must, the cheapest way to get it is not by overtly invading more of Ukraine, but just by “helping” the Ukrainians make a hash of independent governance—not that they’ve needed a whole lot of help since 1991. You stir up trouble and you try to stabilize your assets so as to get some control over them, but you stay far enough away from those assets so as to not to be seen holding a smoking gun should something get out of hand or just flat go wrong—as it obviously has today. You take risks more or less proportionate to your weakness as reckoned by the generally conservative nature of your political objective. Well, the Russians stirred up trouble in eastern Ukraine and proceeded to exhibit the poor executive function of a weakened polity and an extremely narrow decision-making elite, and they not surprisingly demonstrated an evanescent and unevenly skittering control over their proxies. The result is that smoke is now blowing in their eyes even if the guilty gun is not literally in their hands.
And so they have in Moscow right now at the very least a public relations challenge. What I mean is that they are bound to reject any responsibility for what has happened. They will say, in effect, if they have not said it already: “We don’t control these guys or tell them what to do; they don’t listen to us when they talk to us at all.” We expect that. But that has to be simultaneously a confession of highly reckless behavior. Our line in retort: “If you don’t control these thugs, why’d you give them missiles capable of taking down planes flying at 33,000 feet? That’s like giving a nine-year old boy $300 worth of fireworks and a box of matches and absolving yourself preemptively of any accidents that might occur. If you do control them, then you’re responsible for what has happened even if you’re not directly guilty of pulling the trigger.” (The same way, just by the way, that the Israeli government was indirectly responsible for the September 1982 Sabra-Shatila killings but not guilty of them, so said the Agranat Commission, rightly so—since that’s what usually happens when you let murderers and madmen work as your proxies.)
So the Russian government has got itself in a spot where no matter what it says it will either be lying or confessing to criminal negligence. Actually, of course, it will do both; under the circumstances, Moscow doesn’t have much choice. It will go in for multitasking in the special Russian way we’ve come to appreciate over so many years.
Now, what does the U.S. government do about this? Again, it depends on your theory of the case as to what is going on. My view is that what the Russians did in Crimea, in particular, was disturbing but probably not all that serious at the same time. It’s disturbing not because of “the thing” but of “the kind of thing”, as Churchill said of the Italian rape of Ethiopia in 1935 (and thanks to my TAI colleague Eliot Cohen for remembering and applying this perfect historical note). In other words, like Ethiopia then, Crimea now is itself strategically insignificant. We’ll see if Crimea is a harbinger of that “kind of thing”, namely, racialist/ethnic-based aggression, anywhere else in the world soon.
I don’t rule it out, and I am a tireless worrier by nature. But I tend to doubt it nonetheless. I think Russian policy is sui generis right now because of the oddities of the Russian political economy and its historical circumstance. Russia is a wounded former great power in the throes of demographic decline, economic strangeness and military weakness relative to the United States to a degree almost unimaginable in Cold War times. It’s hard for others to imitate that combination of pustulant motives.
Besides, look around broadly at what Putin’s Crimean caper hath wrought. As things stand, Putin gave NATO a new backbone, taught the Ukrainians how to fight, marginalized Russia from key international financial markets, revealed the doings of the dirty-EU-money-go-round banksters for all to see, and got himself a new and mostly Russian-speaking population that increasingly wishes he hadn’t. Crimea is now a cudgel we can use to whip the Russians wherever we feel a need, as in now. It’s even forced the Germans to back off their Rapallo temptations, which seem come in every German political assembly kit since 1871. It’s maybe stopped any Ukrainian effort to join the EU and NATO, but Ukraine is not now eligible for the former and won’t be for many years, and it certainly does not belong in the latter anyway.
All in all, then, it’s really not 1939 again, anymore than it’s 1914 again. And this whole thing is not principally about democracy and human rights; it’s about the return of normal European politics after the Cold War thaw in every nook and cranny of Eurasia outside the EU (and sometimes within it). Positing just a bit of historical awareness, this is about as surprising (to me) as rain in springtime.
What has happened today is certainly a tragedy in human terms, but we need not, and should not, allow emotions to misguide us into making it into a political tragedy as well. If we’re not going to go to war over Crimea or Ukraine, we should certainly not stumble in that direction because some nitwit thug in eastern Ukraine mistakenly shot down a civilian aircraft with a weapon he never should have been given in the first place.
If I were advising the President (please try not to laugh too hard) I’d suggest he be as nimble an opportunist as possible. Want stronger EU support for sanctions against the Putin regime so that we allies can remain in Transatlantic coalition and be more effective at the same time? This is a great time to bang that drum. Want the French to cancel the odious Mistral order? Bang, bang, bang. Want to persuade Congress to like the idea of beefing up the defense budget a tad—which under the circumstances can only help the Democrats in November? Here’s your chance, sir. You get the idea. Let’s hope the President does, too.