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02 March 2014

Red Lines In Crimea


By Walter Russell Mead

President Putin is making his move in Ukraine’s Crimea, and once again the West is caught flat-footed.

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.

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

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 winsThis 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.

 Putin Smashes Washington’s Cocoon

A Politico report calls it “a crisis that no one anticipated.” The Daily Beast, reporting on Friday’s US intelligence assessment that “Vladimir Putin’s military would not invade Ukraine,” quotes a Senate aide claiming that “no one really saw this kind of thing coming.”

Op-eds from all over the legacy press this week helped explained why. Through the rose tinted lenses of a media community deeply convinced that President Obama and his dovish team are the masters of foreign relations, nothing poor Putin did could possibly derail the stately progress of our genius president. There were, we were told, lots of reasons not to worry about Ukraine. War is too costly for Russia’s weak economy. Trade would suffer, the ruble would take a hit. The 2008 war with Georgia is a bad historical comparison, as Ukraine’s territory, population and military are much larger. Invasion would harm Russia’s international standing. Putin doesn’t want to spoil his upcoming G8 summit, or his good press from Sochi. Putin would rather let the new government in Kiev humiliate itself with incompetence than give it an enemy to rally against. Crimea’s Tartars and other anti-Russian ethnic minorities wouldn’t stand for it. Headlines like Why Russia Won’t Invade Ukraine,” “No, Russia Will Not Intervene in Ukraine,” and 5 Reasons for Everyone to Calm Down About Crimea weren’t hard to find in our most eminent publications.

Nobody, including us, is infallible about the future. Giving the public your best thoughts about where things are headed is all a poor pundit (or government analyst) can do. But this massive intellectual breakdown has a lot to do with a common American mindset that is especially built into our intellectual and chattering classes. Well educated, successful and reasonably liberal minded Americans find it very hard to believe that other people actually see the world in different ways. They can see that Vladimir Putin is not a stupid man and that many of his Russian officials are sophisticated and seasoned observers of the world scene. American experts and academics assume that smart people everywhere must want the same things and reach the same conclusions about the way the world works.

How many times did foolishly confident American experts and officials come out with some variant of the phrase “We all share a common interest in a stable and prosperous Ukraine.” We may think that’s true, but Putin doesn’t.

We blame this in part on the absence of true intellectual and ideological diversity in so much of the academy, the policy world and the mainstream media. Most college kids at good schools today know many more people from different races and cultural groups than their grandparents did, but they are much less exposed to people who think outside the left-liberal box. How many faithful New York Times readers have no idea what American conservatives think, much less how Russian oligarchs do? Well bred and well read Americans live in an ideological and cultural cocoon and this makes them fatally slow to understand the very different motivations that animate actors ranging from the Tea Party to the Kremlin to, dare we say it, the Supreme Leader and Guide of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

As far as we can tell, the default assumption guiding our political leadership these days is that the people on the other side of the bargaining table (unless they are mindless Tea Party Republicans) are fundamentally reasonable people who see the world as we do, and are motivated by the same things that motivate us. Many people are, of course, guided by an outlook not all that dissimilar from the standard upper middle class gentry American set of progressive ideas. But some aren’t, and when worlds collide, trouble comes.

Too much of the Washington policy establishment looks around the world and sees only reflections of its own enlightened self. That’s natural and perhaps inevitable to some degree. The people who rise through the competitive bureaucracies of American academic, media and think tank life tend to be those who’ve most thoroughly absorbed and internalized the set of beliefs and behavioral norms that those institutions embody and respect. On the whole, those beliefs and norms have a lot going for them. It would not be an improvement if America’s elite institutions started to look more like their counterparts in Russia or Zimbabwe.

But while those ideas and beliefs help people rise through the machinery of the American power system, they can get in the way when it comes to understanding the motives and calculations of people like President Putin. The best of the journalists, think tankers and officials will profit from the Crimean policy fiasco and will never again be as smug or as blind as so much of Washington was last week. The mediocre majority will go on as before.

The big question of course, is what President Obama will take away from this experience. Has he lost confidence in the self-described (and self-deceived) ‘realists’ who led him down the primrose path with their empty happy talk and their beguiling but treacherous illusions? Has he rethought his conviction that geopolitics and strategy are relics of a barbarous past with no further relevance in our own happy day? Is he tired of being humiliated on the international stage? Is it dawning on him that he has actual enemies rather than difficult partners out there, and that they wish him ill and seek to harm him? (Again, we are not talking about the GOP in Congress.)

Let’s hope so. There are almost three years left in this presidential term, and they could be very long ones if President Obama chooses to stick with the ideas and approaches he’s been using so far.

SoRo: So much for the ‘Smartest man ever to occupy the Oval Office’ and his smarter-than-smart Brain Trust. /


 'The people love you, Mr. President, because you're so much smarter than they are.'

Snort Alert:

'I think Barack knew that he had God-given talents that were extraordinary. He knows exactly how smart he is. … He knows how perceptive he is. He knows what a good reader of people he is. And he knows that he has the ability — the extraordinary, uncanny ability — to take a thousand different perspectives, digest them and make sense out of them, and I think that he has never really been challenged intellectually. So what I sensed in him was not just a restless spirit but somebody with such extraordinary talents that had to be really taxed in order for him to be happy. He’s been bored to death his whole life. He’s just too talented to do what ordinary people do.'

- Valerie Jarrett,
White House senior adviser and longtime Obama friend,
'The Bridge' by David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker

1 comment:

Appraiser said...

This is what happens when delusion makes love to politics, and the bastard child named reality is left swaddled in a basket on a strangers porch.
Welcome home, RWM you were missed.