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Crisis in Ukraine
Slobodan Putin

In word and even in deed, Vladimir Putin is acting a lot like Slobodan Milosevic in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It seems to be working for Putin. But then again, for a time it seemed to be working for Milosevic as well.

Published on: May 5, 2014
Andrew Wood is associate fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, and served in the British Embassy in Moscow from 1964–66, 1979–82 and 1995–2000, the last as Ambassador. He served as Ambassador to Yugoslavia from 1985–89.
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  • Fat_Man

    Milosevic didn’t have nuclear weapons.

  • wigwag

    This essay is entitled “Slobodan Putin;” a better title would be “Bozo Wood.” The American Interest has been publishing a series of articles about Russian activity in Ukraine. What’s been most revelatory is how truly dimwitted much of the commentary has been. With his article, Ambassador Wood reaches new heights of shallow bloviating,

    What the Ukraine crisis teaches us is how selective Western elites are when they decide who is entitled to self-determination and who isn’t. The Serbian paradigm is informative, but for the opposite reason than the Ambassador thinks. Despite the fact that Kosovo was the ancient heartland of Serbia robbed from it by the marauding Ottoman Turks, by the 1990s, the Albanian Muslim majority in Kosovo clearly wanted independence; they were willing to engage in terrorism and gangsterism to achieve their goal. The West decided to reward this terrorism and gangsterism with a bombing campaign against Serbia (never sanctioned by the United Nations, by the way) which eventually “liberated” Kosovo from Serbia. Milosovic’s despicable behavior when he ordered his army to invade Serbia, merely provided the West with a convenient excuse to do what it already wanted to do.

    At the same time that it was concluding that the Kosovar Albanians were entitled to self-determination, it reached the opposite conclusion abut the Serbs in Republika Srpska. Despite the desire of the Bosnian Serbs to have their own homeland, the Americans and Western Europeans decided that they were somehow less entitled to self-determination than the Kosovar Albanians were. We see this same hypocrisy in evidence to this very day. The Americans and Europeans still refuse to support the annexation of the Northern parts of Kosovo to Serbia despite the fact that virtually one hunted percent of the population of these provinces would prefer to be part of Serbia. Self-determination is good enough for the Albanian Kosovars but apparently it is not good enough for the Orthodox Christians who make up the vast majority of the population of these provinces.

    Lest anyone delude themselves into thinking that international law regulates any of this, there was no justification in international law for deciding that the Kosovar Albanians were entitled to self-determination while the Christian Serbians were not. There was no U.N. resolution; the only law that mattered was the law imposed by the United States Air Force which behaved almost precisely the way that Putin and the Russians operated in Crimea. The only difference is that the U.S. bombing campaign killed more people and destroyed far more property that the Russian armed forces did in the recent Crimean adventure.

    Milosevic may have been a crazed maniac; he may have even been a butcher. None of this excuses the West’s hypocrisy in the Balkins and none of it excuses Ambassador Wood’s naivety.

    The Ambassador is equally clueless in his attempt to understand where Putin is coming from. The idea of American exceptionalism or Western exceptionalism seems hopelessly 20th century to people like the Ambassador. To them, all cultures, all traditions, and all narratives are equally worthy. So imbued by Wilsonian ideas are this ilk that they are not only willing to subordinate Western values to third world values, but they are anxious to do so. In Kosovo, that’s why they were so much more willing to support the desire of the Kosovar Albanians to achieve independence than they were of the same desire of the Orthodox Serbians.

    Unlike Ambassador Wood and Western intellectuals and foreign policy elites, Putin has a different world-view. He thinks Russia, not the United States is the “indispensable nation” and he believes it is in great danger not because its economy is imploding but because it is imploding demographically. The birth rate of Russian Christians has been plunging for decades and while it has recovered somewhat recently, Russia is becoming more Muslim all of the time. Russia’s Muslim population is far more fecund than its Christian or secular population. Given his multicultural impulses, this fact may seem inconsequential to Ambassador Wood; it does not seem inconsequential to President Putin. He needs every single one of those Russian speakers that he can find and he is desperate to incorporate them back into Russia whether they are in Ukraine, Georgia or elsewhere in the former Soviet Republics. In Putin’s view, Russian survival is critical and he needs all of those Russian speakers to become Russian citizens if Russia is to escape its demographic death march.

    Putin’s behavior may not be pretty, but it is perfectly understandable and perfectly logical from his perspective. While Putin’s strategy may seem thuggish to Ambassador Wood, it is no more violent or thuggish than Western behavior in the Balkans was. And for those foolish enough to care about international law, it is no more illegal.

    Ambassador Wood’s essay does accomplish one thing; it perfectly captures the incompetence, fecklessness and delusional thinking of the people who believe that they are serious thinkers about foreign policy.

    • Corlyss

      “What’s been most revelatory is how truly dimwitted much of the commentary has been.”

      Spot on, Wag. There’s a reason diplomats with extremely rare exceptions get caught flat-footed when the shooting starts: they preternaturally favor the status quo for their own country. Much of the professional foreign affairs commentariat either have worked or will work for State at one time or another, and they have to demonstrate their absolute faith in peaceful resolutions, even when the latter are long since out of the question.

      Wood appears to have forgotten that Milosevic would never have suffered at the hands of the Europeans at all, that the US and NATO in 1998 were very different creatures from what they are today, and there’s no evidence, given the character of the differences, that either one will go to war, even to honor article 5 obligations. All the former satellite states have going for them is prayer.

      Even Gulf 1, which the US won handily with the fig-leaf of an international coalition willing to fight, would never have happened if GHWB had been left to his own thought processes without Maggie Thatcher’s backbone. The pre-Soviet international order has been “spinning slowly down to die” for quite a while, to quote that eminent foreign policy analyst, David Gates.

      The only question is how long is the commentariat going to keep kidding itself about the “wisdom” of Obama’s policies and chortling to itself that Putin has no idea of how badly he’s hurt himself or Russia with his actions. Whistling past the graveyard of American leadership of the international community.

    • adk

      Nice rant,wigwag.

      So, according to you, Putin:

      “…thinks Russia, (not the United States or Britain) is the “indispensable nation” and he believes it is in great danger not because its economy is tanking but because it is imploding demographically.”

      Are you Putin’s spokesman? Mind-reader? How do you know what Putin really thinks? And even if he does think all these things, so what? Here’s what, again according to you:

      “He needs every single one of those Russian speakers that he can find and he is desperate to incorporate them back into Russia whether they are in Ukraine, Georgia or elsewhere in the former Soviet Republics. In Putin’s view, Russian survival is critical and he needs all of those Russian speakers to become Russian citizens if Russia is to escape its demographic death march.”

      “Russian speakers”, huh? Well, most, if not all Ukrainians are Russian-speakers. So are great many Georgians, Moldovans, Kazakhs… but wait, Kazakhs are moslems, and you say, “Russia’s Muslim population is far more fecund than its Christian or secular population.” So no, Putin wouldn’t want any more moslems, even Russian-speaking, right? According to your logic, to save Mother Russia demographically, he would want even fewer Russian-speaking moslems who for centuries lived in Russia/USSR/Russia, such as Tatars or Chechens? But then he fought a very brutal war to keep moslem Chechnya as part of Russian Federation and just re-acquired Crimea with its significant moslem Tatar population… confusing, isn’t it?
      So maybe you meant not any Russian speakers that Putin wants to re-incorporate, but ethnic Christian (or at least atheist) Russians? Btw, has it occurred to you, that not even all of those want to become Russian citizens? Because if they all did, Putin would be having a much easier time in Eastern Ukraine and other parts of the former USSR.

      So it’s you, not Amb.Wood, who is truly clueless. Mr. Wood is right on all points — Putin is really a disaster for Russia and a menace beyond it.

  • Corlyss

    Why one should never trust voters to lead politicians on foreign affairs:

    2) A glance at the exit polls showed that Obama won the foreign policy question pretty handily. Only five percent of respondents thought that foreign policy was the most critical issue in this campaign — but of those five percent, voters went for Obama over Romney by 56% to 33%. Voters were also more likely to trust Barack Obama in an international crisis (57%-42%) than Mitt Romney (50%-46%).

    This is the first exit poll in at least three decades where the Democrat has outperformed the Republican on foreign policy and national security. And I guarantee that whoever runs from the GOP side in 2016 will not have a ton of foreign policy experience. The GOP has managed to squander an advantage in perceived foreign policy competency that it had owned for decades. This — combined with shifts on social issues and demographics — will be a problem that the Republicans are going to need to address. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/11/07/quick_hits_on_the_2012_us_election

  • joe strummer
  • Andrew Allison

    To suggest that Milosevic was in the same league as Putin is to display utter stupidity. Milosevic was a brute, Putin is a strategist who has run rings around the ineffectual West.

  • gdoctorow

    Thanks so much, Wigwag, for mopping the floor with Andrew Wood. He richly deserves it. From my several meetings with Wood in Moscow when he was still ambassador I can attest to his hopeless naivete. And he has fallen in with bad company – his co-author and comrade in arms Lilia Shevtsova is a case of rabid anti-Putinism. I still find it hard to picture the mild-mannered Wood at her side as she crosses the lines of decency and spews seditious bile. However,I also think back on Wood’s peculiarly undiplomatic hatred for Milosevic whom, he confessed in a weak moment, he had once wished to murder. A dagger, I think, was the imagined weapon of choice.How these mild mannered men can conceal a bloody streak….

    But once we get beyond our common estimation of Wood’s talents as political analyst, I do part company with Wigwag. He wants to drag us through every phase of the Balkan conflicts when nationalism in the sense of Milosevic is really not at all what drives Mr. Putin’s decisions.

    Don’t believe for a minute all the talk about fraternal Slavic peoples, about the ethnic Russian cause. That is for popular consumption only – and for the fools in the West like Wood who know no better. The Kremlin leader was and remains a devoted student of Realpolitik and his actions on Crimea were dictated solely by national security considerations.

    The possibility that the Maidan gang and its American sponsors would boot the Russian Black Sea fleet out of its home port in Sevastopol and invite in Nato forces was a red line that no Moscow leader could allow to be transgressed and expect to stay in power. As for the southeast Ukraine, one can be sure that invasion or annexation is not the preferred course of action in Moscow, also for reasons of Realpolitk. The liabilities outweigh the benefits of direct rule. Ensuring that a Western controlled Ukraine is no military threat to Russia is the only driving consideration. Of course, if the US and EU persist in their present madness and impose crushing sanctions on Russia for its sheer sassiness, then watch out: the Ukraine will be savagely divided and the West will get the bankrupt crumbs.

    • wigwag

      I don’t disagree with you; Putin had many good reasons for annexing Crimea. There’s not a Russian leader in the past five hundred years who wouldn’t have done the same thing in the same circumstances.

      Why annex Crimea?

      While the dimwitted Ambassador might not be able to figure it out; its really pretty simple. First of all, the vast majority of Crimeans are of Russian stock and they were practically begging Putin to annex a region that had been governed autonomously from the rest of the Ukraine for decades. Secondly, Ukraine had historically been part of Russia until the Ukrainian born Nikita Khrushchev decided to transfer Crimea to the Ukraine Soviet Socialist Republic in the 1950s.

      But Putin had an even better reason; let’s just say that Russia doesn’t exactly have a surfeit of warm water ports (though global warming might be on the verge of changing that) Sevastopol is far from the perfect port for the Russian fleet. To reach the Mediterranean, Russian ships need to pass through the NATO dominated Bosphorus and the Dardanelles. Beggars cant be choosers and for Russia, Sevastopol is as good as it gets. The idea that Putin or any other Russian leader would ever take any chance of losing Sevastopol is simply ridiculous.

      Let’s not forget the Tatars. Stalin brutally exiled them from their ancient homeland in the 1940s. Stalin’s behavior was repugnant, but it wasn’t out of character for the time. The victorious Allies stewarded the displacement of tens of millions of people in the aftermath of the War. The fate of the Tatars was shared by many millions of ethnic Germans, Ukrainians, Jews, Indian Hindus, Indian Muslims and several other ethnic groups.

      Perhaps Ambassador Wood remembers what Winston Churchill had to say on the subject,

      “Expulsion is the method which, so far as we have been able to see, will be the most
      satisfactory and lasting. There will be no mixture of populations to cause endless trouble. . . . A clean sweep will be made. I am not alarmed at the prospect of the disentanglement of population, nor am I alarmed by these large transferences.”
      Like their Sunni Muslim brethren in the rest of Russia, the Tatars are far more fecund than their Orthodox Christian/secular neighbors; and since the 1980s they have been returning to Crimea in large numbers. Already the Tatar population of Crimea exceeds the number of people that Stalin exiled. Putin can’t abide the thought of a Tatar majority living in close proximity to a warm water port that Russia has coveted for centuries. We can be sure of the fact that now that Putin is firmly in control of Crimea, the number of Tatar exiles returning to Crimea will slow to a trickle.

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