Whatever the ultimate outcome of Vladimir Putin’s Crimean Gambit, now threatening to become a Donbas Gambit, it reminds us that the United States still has some unfinished business in Europe. Putin’s dramatic move into Crimea, and his subsequent sporting with Ukraine like a cat playing with a wounded mouse, is devastating to liberal aspirations about the kind of Europe, and world, we would like to live in. It affronts our moral and political sensibilities, and it raises the specter of a serious and unfavorable shift in the regional balance of power. But so far, Western leaders have signally failed to develop an effective response to this, to them, an utterly unexpected and shocking challenge.
Since the end of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union, successor state to the old Tsarist empire, fell apart, the former Russian empire has been divided into eleven separate republics. The closest parallel, an ominous one to many of these states, would be to what happened the last time the Russian state collapsed, in 1917-1919. Then as in 1990, the former empire splintered into a collection of separate republics. Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, the Central Asian states and the Baltic republics set out on an independent existence. Then, as Lenin and his heirs consolidated power in Moscow, the various breakaway republics returned (in some cases more willingly than others) to the fold. By 1939, when Soviet troops invaded the Baltic Republics, from Central Asia to the Baltic Sea, almost all of the far-flung dominions of the Romanovs were once more under a single flag. Only Poland and Finland were able to resist incorporation into the Soviet Union, and the Poles were forced into the Warsaw Pact.
Lenin and Stalin were able to rebuild the tsarist empire first because they succeeded in creating a strong state in Russia, second because many of the breakaway states were divided and weak, and finally because a permissive international environment posed few effective barriers to the reassertion of Moscow’s power.
There should be little doubt in anyone’s mind today that the Kremlin aims to repeat the process, and from President Putin’s desk it must look as if many of the pieces for a second restoration are in place. Many of the ex-Soviet republics are weak, divided and badly governed. Many are locked in conflicts over territory or torn by ethnic strife. President Putin, whatever one may think of his methods or of the long-term prognosis, has rebuilt a strong Russian state that is able to mobilize the nation’s resources in the service of a revisionist foreign policy. And the international environment, while not perhaps as permissive as in the immediate aftermath of World War One (when Lenin gathered many of the straying republics back to Russia’s bosom) or the prelude to World War Two (when Stalin completed the project), nevertheless affords President Putin some hopes of success.
At the military level, the United States now has its weakest military presence in Europe since the 1940s, and with large defense cutbacks built into budget assumptions and significant commitments elsewhere, it would be extremely difficult for the United States to rebuild its military presence in Europe without a 180 degree turn by the Obama administration. The European members of NATO, meanwhile, have continued their generational program of disarmament even as Russia rebuilt its capacity. Russia’s military capacity is limited and its ability to project power over significant distances is small, but the military balance of forces in the European theater hasn’t been this favorable to the Russians since the end of the Cold War.
But Putin doesn’t need military parity or anything like it. Lenin and Stalin were much weaker than their potential opponents when they rebuilt the Russian empire under the Soviet flag, but leaders read world politics shrewdly enough to understand that their opponents’ greater military power wouldn’t actually come into play. Once Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire collapsed, the western allies of World War One could have imposed almost any settlement they liked on eastern Europe, had they been willing to back their designs with military force and sustained political energy. But war weary publics at home, divided counsels among the allies, and a western preoccupation with the chaos elsewhere in Europe allowed Lenin and Trotsky to regain much of what was lost in the chaos of transition and civil war. Similarly, the grotesque parody of foreign policy that shaped British and French designs during the illusion-ridden 1930s ultimately created a situation in which Moscow could act in the Baltic, despite its military weakness and economic difficulties.
Putin today must believe that western division and confusion offer him solid assurances that he can disregard the prospects of western military intervention as long as his activities are confined to the non-NATO republics of the former Soviet Union. It could be worse. Under certain circumstances, he may think that the Baltic Republics are fair game. While all government officials will unite in a hissing of denunciation and denial if anyone says it out loud, there isn’t a lot of appetite in any of the NATO governments west of Poland for military action on the Baltic coast. If Russia moved quickly across a Baltic frontier to ‘liberate’ some ethnic Russians, would NATO send troops to drive the Russians back out? We are no doubt telling the Russians that the frontiers of NATO countries are another one of our now-famous red lines, but Putin may think he knows us better than we know ourselves.
From Putin’s point of view, the EU must present a particularly contemptible picture. Paralyzed by the poisonous consequences of the euro, divided north and south by the question of debt and east and west by the question of immigration, the EU is even less effective and fast moving than usual. George Soros (whose views, one believes, the Kremlin follows carefully even if it loathes his influence) argues that the minimalist ‘solutions’ the EU adopted to prevent the euro crisis flaring into devastating financial crises have locked the Union into a path of gradually worsening political crises over austerity and its consequences. While developments like the Greek return to the bond markets suggest that even in Europe bad times don’t last forever, Putin apparently not only believes the Soros analysis; he is acting on it. Russia is pursuing an aggressive, influence-expanding program inside the EU and NATO as well as outside it. Linking up with anti-Brussels, anti-Berlin politicians like Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, Russia is developing deeper financial, economic and even political links well inside the divided Union. With business and especially the energy business increasingly converted into an arm of state power, Russia is developing the kinds of connections inside the EU that have proved so effective in the post-Soviet space still outside it.
The staggering incoherence of European energy policy (with Germany racing to dismantle nuclear reactors even as Putin brandishes his energy weapons) is another sign to the Kremlin that the Europeans are likely to remain both divided and ineffective against anything short of a tank offensive aimed at the Fulda Gap. As Lilia Shevtsova demonstrates, the German intellectual and diplomatic worlds now re-echo with excuses for and rationalizations of Putin’s new course.
Meanwhile, it is not at all clear that the key members of the Union view the eastern borderlands in the same way. For Poland and the Baltic states, the new Russian activism is close to an existential threat. Others may actually welcome a newly assertive Russia as the answer to what is perceived in some quarters as an over-mighty Germany in the EU. This would not be the first time that influential voices in Paris called for an entente with an ugly regime in Russia in the interests of the European balance of power. It was in 1891 that the archconservative Tsar Alexander III stunned the world by standing as a French naval band played La Marseillaise at Kronstadt; the secular French Republic was willing to side with an Orthodox absolute monarch to balance the scales against Bismarck’s Germany.
A century later in 1989 there were many in France who questioned the wisdom of breaking up the Soviet Union while uniting Germany. The last 20 years cannot have lessened French doubts about the wisdom of that course, and French qualms about the proper policy toward Russia find echoes elsewhere. Italy and the members of Club Med will not want money spent in the east that could go to the south.
None of this would suggest to President Putin that he has much to fear from Europe; despite the ritual war dances and expressions of hostility in Washington, one doesn’t see much happening here that would change his calculation about western plans. Is there a groundswell of public support to boost US deployments in Europe? Are voters circulating petitions to position US forces on the border of the Baltic states? Is there a serious move to sign bilateral defense treaties with the endangered states (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus) or to bulk up the US presence in Central Asia?
No, there is not, and President Putin knows it very well. The United States is a stronger power in the military sense than Russia, but there is no thirst for war. The United States today is no more willing to contest Russian power in ex-Soviet space than it was to stop Hitler’s march into the Sudetenland in 1938.
Policy must always begin with facts, and as western leaders grapple with the new Russia, western division, weakness and lack of will are where we must begin. Thumping our chests and making rash, hypocritical boasts about a devotion to freedom and international law which we do not, in fact possess—at least if it involves spending real money or running real risks—will only set us up for more humiliating failures. The strategist must know himself, warns Sun Tzu; we must stop pretending to ourselves at least that we are more united and strong willed than we really are.
We must also acknowledge the pervasive failure of the Ukrainians and many of their neighbors to build strong states. It’s not simply that their governments are corrupt and incompetent and that they aren’t very effective at problem solving or policy making. It’s not simply that any aid we send them is at high risk of being stolen or wasted. It means that their institutions and their national establishment are riddled top to bottom with people whose loyalty has been or can easily be suborned by the Kremlin. It also means that their military establishments are overwhelmingly likely to be poorly prepared, badly trained, incompetently led and corruptly managed. There are no doubt exceptions to these dismal generalizations, but we cannot plan without taking a hard look at the real state of affairs.
Whatever can be said about the medium to long term, in the here and now we have allowed ourselves to be outmaneuvered and outwitted, and we don’t have many good cards to play. Imposing what sanctions the Europeans will accept, and gradually tightening them over time, may be the best we can do right now; if so, Washington needs to remember that barking loudly when you can’t bite will be seen as a sign of impotence and incontinence rather than as exhibiting high principles and moral commitment.
The West has a Russia problem, and we need to think clearly about our overall strategic relationship with Russia as the first step in formulating a response to Putin’s aggression against a peaceful neighboring state. There are two issues here; America’s generic attitude to Russia as a great power independent from the question of who wields power there and what his policies are, and America’s specific attitude toward Vladimir Putin’s regime.
It is on the question of America’s generic relationship to Russia considered abstractly that the ‘realists’ who would like to reconcile with Putin as quickly as possible have the strongest case. The Obama administration’s attempt to reset relations with Russia was an embarrassing failure, but it was rooted in real truths about American interests. While there are and always will be problematic aspects to the relationship of the United States with all strong and vigorous powers around the world whose interests and values sometimes run athwart our own, a strong Russia is or at least can be a good thing from an American point of view. We would like to see a government in Moscow that is strong enough to undertake such necessary tasks as the protection and guardianship of its nuclear arsenal, able to prevent the spread of terrorism, anarchy or organized crime across its vast territories, and able to play a strong and effective role in ensuring that the balance of power in northeastern Asia contains a large number of significant powers. A healthy oil and gas industry in Russia is by no means necessarily a thorn in America’s flesh; Russian production both stimulates global prosperity by helping to keep prices lower than they would otherwise be and limits the danger that supply disruptions in the Middle East can create global economic crises.
The failed reset policy recognized that American policy toward Russia after the Cold War has been consistently flawed. It was an error of the Clinton administration to proceed with the construction of a post-Cold War Europe that had no real place for Russia, and the rise of Putin and Putinism can in part be ascribed both to unwise western policies and to the attitudes of arrogance and condescension against which Putin and his allies so vigorously rail.
From these facts, some are already constructing the case for appeasement. Our bad behavior in the past has made Russia angry and resentful—perhaps angrier than in strict justice it has the right to be, but emotions often run high. We can and should now soothe Russia’s frayed sensibilities, flatter its self esteem, and demonstrate that it has nothing to fear by our generous and far sighted behavior. We should welcome a strong and perhaps somewhat larger Russia into the circles of great power and turn as blind an eye as possible to the dismemberment of Ukraine and to future Russian expansion in the ex-Soviet space. As Putin realizes that the United States and its allies have repented of our past errors and are willing to allow Russia some ‘reasonable’ room for expansion and assertion, we can move to a pragmatic new relationship based on a more stable balance of interest and power.
If only this were true, so that with a small, almost unnoticeable sacrifice of principle and honor we could buy a quiet life. But life isn’t that easy. Putin, as I have said before, is no Hitler. But neither is he an Adenauer or Brandt, ready to stand in partnership to build a liberal world. As Lilia Shevstova notes on this site, Putin has chosen the path of repression at home and war abroad because these in his view offer the best hope of preserving his power. Because of the logic of his domestic situation, he has chosen the dark path of fascism, and is out to change the way the world works in ways that the United States must, out of its interests as well as its values, resist.
Victories like those Putin has notched up in Ukraine will awaken rather than slake his ambition. He needs triumphs abroad to vindicate and justify his rule and his repression at home, and foreign policy victories are like cocaine when it comes to their impact on public opinion: the buzz of each hit soon wears off, leaving only the craving for another and larger dose. Putin has grown and will grow hungrier and more reckless with each gain notched, each victory achieved. His contempt for the moral and political decadence of the West will be confirmed, his ideas of what he can attempt will grow more audacious, and his power to advance his agenda will grow as weakness and concession undermine our alliances and tilt the political balance in a growing number of states to lean his way. And other leaders around the world will have observed that the world order so laboriously erected on the ruins of World War Two by the United States and its allies is a hollow façade.
We are on track to repeat all the follies of the tragic period between the two world wars. At Versailles and through the1920s, the West fanned the flames of German rage by treating the defeated enemy with open contempt and by erecting a new European order that flagrantly ignored German wishes and interests. This is how we treated Russia in the 1990s. The West provided economic aid to the “Weimar Russia” of Boris Yeltsin much as the Young and the Dawes plans helped Germany relaunch its economy in the 1920s. But in the 1990s as in the 1920s the West was uninterested in addressing nationalist grievances or in strengthening genuine moderates. For democratic Weimar politicians, the West had nothing to offer on the Rhineland, nothing on the Saar; for Hitler, all of that plus Austria and the Sudetenland were suddenly on the table. We weakened our friends and empowered our enemy. We cannot and must not repeat this mistake now. Russia may have legitimate grievances and it certainly has interests that ought to be taken into account, but as long as Vladimir Putin stands at the head of affairs, Moscow must expect no favors from the West. Our message should be that the West will concede nothing to Putin, but is prepared to work constructively with a different Russian government to make Russia powerful and respected at home and abroad. Through continuing study and reflection in the West combined with track two exchanges and back channel conversations, we should develop a joint vision for an attractive and realistic Russian future so that Putin will be seen more clearly as what he is: an obstacle to rather than an instrument of Russian national power and prestige.
Back to the Basics: NATO and Hard Power
Our new policy towards Putin’s new Russia must begin with NATO. Before we can hope to induce Putin’s Russia to respect anything else, we must teach it that NATO is real and that we are in earnest. This probably cannot be done at this point without substantial and visible upgrades to NATO’s presence in the periphery states of the alliance. There will have to be more NATO installations and more US troops in places like Estonia and Romania. Right now, there is a non-negligible chance that Russia might try to create facts on the ground inside one or more of the Baltic Republics. The border defenses of those republics must be reinforced to make that impossible. That move may infuriate Putin but it will also be a healthy reminder of his impotence in the face of genuine allied resolve, and will make a serious war crisis less likely. There is a real security threat to the Baltic states, and any failure to address that proactively would be reckless imprudence. There are burglars in the neighborhood and the windows and doors must be bolted shut.
Words, given the plethora of empty ones we have uttered in the recent past, are no longer enough by themselves, but as we take effective steps to shore up NATO’s defenses, the President should ask both houses of Congress to pass resolutions reaffirming America’s solemn commitments to its treaty allies. It would be the duty of Republicans who are serious about defense to support him in this. One cannot expect unanimity in a large, diverse and free country like ours, but rallying the nation to the cause of NATO is in the President’s job description now, and it is incumbent on Republicans to support any constructive steps the President takes to shore up the national defense. Every manifestation of public unity and political will around the Atlantic alliance will have an impact on the Kremlin’s calculations, especially when these are backed by concrete steps to secure the frontiers.
That does little for Ukraine, and this is regrettable, but Ukraine never requested much less obtained membership in NATO. There is a fundamental difference between countries who are members of an alliance and those who are not; we are not obliged (beyond the gauzy sentiments of the UN Charter) to defend every country in the world against every predator. Reinforcing the boundaries of NATO will demonstrate the value of an American alliance to current and potential allies. In that way, we can transform Putin from NATO’s aspiring gravedigger to its chief publicist; if we now bolster NATO to make our allies safe we can still emerge from this crisis with an invigorated rather than a weakened alliance network. There are things the United States can and should do to help the people of Ukraine in this time of crisis, but in the immediate future our military measures must aim at reinforcing our existing alliances rather than expanding them.
Additionally, President Obama should review planned cuts in the defense budget and, while continuing to eliminate waste, scale back planned cuts in American forces. Even anti-tax Republicans in Congress should agree to raise new revenues to cover these costs; few things would send as powerful a signal of American purpose as a bipartisan commitment to raise taxes in support of our alliance obligations. If far Left Democrats and isolationist Republicans want to oppose these measures, let them do so—but the sensible center can and should prevail.
It is also worth remembering the role that Ronald Reagan’s high tech military buildup played in bringing the Soviet leaders of the 1980s down to earth. The United States has the ability to deprive Russia’s nuclear arsenal of much of its utility through improved missile defense and the development of other high tech weapons and systems. Russian nationalists might rethink their strategy if it was clear to them that provoking the United States triggers a response that further undercuts Russia’s military claims to strategic parity.
Beyond NATO: American Policy in Europe
The United States has tried to disengage from Europe three times since the end of the Cold War, and each time the disengagement failed. The Clinton administration tried to outsource Yugoslavia to the Europeans in the 1990s and was ultimately pulled into the Balkans. George W. Bush tried to conduct foreign policy around and over the heads of “Old Europe”; the experience was not a success. President Obama has similarly sought to relegate America’s European engagement to the rearview mirror, and President Putin has demonstrated yet again that the consequences of American disengagement are bad.
European peace and prosperity without close American engagement and support has been impossible since World War One, and since World War One it has been impossible for the United States to ignore the consequences when things go badly for Europe. Perhaps after more than a century it is time to face up to the reality that our political and military as well as our commercial interests are tangled up in Europe for the long run and that we must manage our engagement more effectively and actively than we’ve done for some time.
Given what we’ve seen in Ukraine, the US and the EU need to work much more closely together on policy vis a vis the non-Russian former Soviet states. This policy can’t be seen as simply legalistic or commercial, expanding free trade zones or supporting the rule of law and the development of institutions; security issues are also involved.
More, Europe’s failure to develop coherent energy policy is clearly a contributing factor to Putin’s transparent contempt for the bloc as well as to Europe’s continuing vulnerability to Russian pressure. Europe’s countries have many voices when it comes to energy policy; the United States needs to play a larger and more constructive role in the continent’s musings over energy policy, and the new American reserves now coming on line could be part of a long term strategy to reduce Europe’s vulnerability to energy blackmail.
The US may also need to consider how it can play a more useful role in Europe’s internal debates over economic policy. Europe’s weakness before Russian pressure is both directly and indirectly attributable in part to the fallout from the euro disaster. Economic pain has divided the union, alienated many voters both from Brussels and their national authorities, reduced Europe’s energy and resources for external policy ventures, contributed to the bitterness over immigration and fueled the rise of the extreme right wing parties Putin now seeks to mobilize. Important American interests have been seriously harmed by the monetary muddle in Europe, and Washington needs to think more carefully about how it can play a more consequential and constructive role.
The rise of fascist and near fascist parties across the European Union is a much more serious concern of American policymakers now that President Putin has embraced the toxic cocktail of ultra-nationalism, street violence and open hatred of liberal order as part of his international program. Russia is once again prepared to wage ideological war against the liberal west as it did in Soviet times, and a significantly enhanced and upgraded Ministry of the Dark Arts is now working overtime to spread propaganda, recruit supporters and make mischief for the liberal west whenever and however it can. In Europe and elsewhere, the United States and its allies will once again have to dust off some of our Cold War methods and programs, and here we are currently operating at a serious disadvantage. Putin the old KGB man has made substantial investments in the Dark Arts; they are cheaper than other forms of power projection, they build on the considerable legacy of the Soviet era, and they exploit the weaknesses of open societies. Today’s neo-fascism is capable of uniting the far Left and the far Right in anti-liberal ‘popular fronts’ in various ways and in Europe and elsewhere, the United States will once again engage in ideological battles with an unscrupulous and intelligent foe.
The Troubled East
Naked Russian aggression in Ukraine and the potential that Russian adventurism will spread chaos in the rest of the neighborhood have drawn world attention to the former Soviet states on Europe’s frontiers. Europe’s eastern problems don’t begin where the EU and NATO end. In Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania, the process of European expansion has run into deep trouble, and the situation in many of the former Yugoslav territories leaves much to be desired. Greece and Cyprus remain alienated from the west, members of the EU but drawn to Russia through cultural and in some cases economic ties.
It is difficult to guess Putin’s next steps, and it is far from clear that he is acting from a master plan rather than improvising in the heat of battle. Nevertheless, the most important objective for him may not be the southeast of Ukraine, where his forces are running rampant through the country’s industrial heartland. Instead the great prize may be the southwest, an area that includes the Black Sea port of Odessa and gives him a boundary not only with the pro-Russian breakaway Transnistrian statelet, but with NATO and the EU itself. To fan the forces in the EU that resent the technocratic dictates of Brussels, to cultivate a sense of pan-Slavic unity that looks to Mother Russia, and to provide aid and encouragement for anti-western leaders like Hungary’s Orban would suit Putin very well.
The EU is currently struggling in the southeast of Europe. The Balkans and Hungary are not doing well, and efforts to build western style states and institutions in countries with very different histories and traditions have not had the hoped for success. The euro crisis did not affect these countries directly, as none of them other than Cyprus and Greece have the exquisite happiness of belonging to the currency union, but the continental recession and crisis dealt a damaging blow to western prestige. Western countries who can’t agree on much else agree that welfare-scrounging immigrants from the Balkans are a curse and scourge, and the list of western countries looking to limit immigration from the southeast is long. This does not go over well with public opinion in the Balkans. Should Russia continue to gain economic clout and work more consciously to build political relationships with important parties and leaders in these EU and NATO member states, both NATO and the European Union could soon become houses much more divided than they already are, and Russia could gain significant influence in the internal councils of the EU, not to mention de facto vetoes over decisions like NATO expansion. We should not confuse all of this with a global contest on the scale of the Cold War; even if Putin succeeds in uniting all the ex-Soviet states under the Russian flag, his Greater Russia would be a smaller and more poorly situated power than the Soviet Union. Germany remains united, Poland is free, and Russia cannot hope to dominate Central Europe as the USSR once did.
European fecklessness dragged the Clinton administration kicking and screaming into the morass of the bloody wars of the Yugoslav succession; the Obama administration, despite its eagerness to scale back, is already feeling the tidal pull back into a larger and potentially even more difficult region at a time when the options are all unappealing. Appeasing Putin won’t work; opposing him is going to be difficult and expensive, but ignoring him will be impossible.
President Obama once hoped he could manage a kind of global triage. We could pivot away from a Europe that didn’t need us and a Middle East that didn’t want us into an Asia that both needed and wanted our presence. These days the White House is facing a harder but perhaps more durable truth: the United States needs to pivot back toward the world.