Danger, Will Robinson!

It may be time to heed the warning of the robot in the 1960’s television show “Lost in Space” when it comes to Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech at the Kremlin yesterday concerning the annexation of Crimea.  (The Kremlin transcript of the speech may be found here.  If one takes him at his word, and I think we should, beware.)

It is past time to stop categorizing Putin’s pronouncements as nothing more than incredible Russian propaganda.  He is serious.  Yesterday he laid down a blue print for restoring Russia to what Putin believes is its rightful place in the world order.  I do not think he is bluffing and I do believe that he says what he means in this speech.  In it, he uses several historical references to bolster his claim that what Russia did in the Crimea was in keeping with previous precedent.  He is taking the long view  — a vision of Russia for the future — in the speech.  Clearly when he uses words like “plundered” in reference to the end of the cold war and the loss of Crimea to Ukraine and the departure from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)  (the immediate follow-on to the Soviet Union) of former Soviet republics, he is laying the groundwork for his case that Russia should reclaim its historical lands.  (Historical in the context of a Russian empire, not necessarily the context of the totality of history.)  He follows it up with claims that following the break up of the CIS, Russian citizens “went to bed in one country and awoke in different ones, overnight becoming ethnic minorities in former Union republics, while the Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders.”  Given his actions in Moldova, Georgia and now Ukraine, this statement should set off all kinds of alarm bells in Europe, the United States and indeed, the rest of the world. When he speaks of an “outrageous historical injustice” it is not rhetoric, it his view of the world.

He may not act in the next few weeks, or even in the next year, but clearly Putin has designs to restore the empire formerly known as the Soviet Union.  In my view it does not mean that he will literally do so, and it does not mean a return to communism in Russia (he and his pals are getting too rich off the current system to want to go back).  It does mean that he intends to restore what he sees as the glory of the Russian state and that he will not tolerate nations on Russia’s borders that do not bow in the direction of Moscow.  He doesn’t need to occupy as long as he can intimidate them and have them join his Eurasian Economic Union of former Soviet states vice join the European Union and move towards the west.  This is where Ukraine ran afoul of the Russian bear.

In his speech, Putin uses a very legalistic approach as he delineates why the Russians not only can act, but should act.  To me, this further defines that his speech is not meant as propaganda or even only to justify his actions in Crimea.  It means that further actions in the same context are justified.   Clearly, time and again in the speech, Putin makes clear that Russia has been wronged and that it is time to act to rectify the situation and to restore Russian greatness.  He refers to the policy of containment in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries by the west and sees it as the height of “hypocrisy.”  In so doing, he claims that “our western partners have crossed the line, playing the bear and acting irresponsibly and unprofessionally.”  Sound familiar?

A significant trigger to his actions is the growth of NATO.  This is considered a direct threat to the well-being of Russia.  Ukraine joining NATO (whether or not that was a realistic development) was probably the last straw in Putin’s view.  As he says; “For all the internal processes within the organisation, NATO remains a military alliance, and we are against having a military alliance making itself at home right in our backyard or in our historic territory. I simply cannot imagine that we would travel to Sevastopol to visit NATO sailors.”

Despite some of the domestic political rhetoric in the United States, it would not have mattered who was sitting in the Office of the President of the United States when the events in Ukraine unfolded.  Putin acted predictably when his chosen ally, deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych left the country and a pro-western interim government emerged.  The question is now what to do about it?

International diplomacy is a tough, slow endeavor.  This is especially true in a situation such as the annexation of Crimea where the average European or American citizen cannot really see what difference it makes to their lives.  So what?  Likewise, the west has been trying to give Putin “off ramps” and face-saving solutions to the problem.  Why?  Putin is now rubbing the results in our face — he is not interested in saving face because he feels that he has the upper hand.  It is the west, in his view, that needs to save face.

Coupled with this is the clear unlikelihood, barring an outright military invasion of Poland (sound familiar?) or other NATO nations, of US or NATO military action and Putin knows he is in the position of strength.  Just as after World War I, the US and Europe have expressed their war weariness following Iraq and Afghanistan and have expressly demonstrated no interest in engaging in another military action.  (See Syria:  Pundits blame President Obama for drawing a “red line” on Syria and not following through, but remember that it was the UK Parliament and the US Congress that refused to support it, among others.)

Make no mistake, I am not advocating military action to return Crimea to Ukraine, nor should any other direct military action now be on the table under the current set of events.  The steps taken to reassure our NATO allies with increased deployments of aircraft, although more symbolic than militarily effective, are sufficient for now as a military response.

Where we do have the upper hand is economically.  Russia’s economy is very weak and both the nation’s economy and the oligarchs surrounding Putin depend heavily on exports of gas and oil.  This is where significant efforts to convey to Putin that we take him seriously, and he should take us equally seriously, can be made.  Russia has threatened counter-sanctions should the west impose sanctions and follow-up on the rhetoric.  So be it.  Taking the long view, Russia will suffer far more than Europe or the United States.  The problem is that few people take the long view.  Short term comfort or profit seems to be more important.  It’s cold so we need natural gas.  We like the money the oligarchs have invested in the west, especially Germany and the UK.  (How many people know that the NBA Brooklyn Nets are owned by Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov?  I’m not saying he is necessarily a Putin crony, just that most people do not know how wide-spread the business interests of Russian billionaires — making their billions in the post-Soviet chaos of Russia in the 1990s — may be.)

Likewise, major US corporations are heavily invested in Russian markets and fear losing those investments if the US and Russia get into an economic tit-for-tat.  They have been lobbying heavily for minor actions to protest Russian movements without jeopardizing their stake in Russia today.

What is clear is that putting sanctions against seven relatively minor Russian officials and four former Ukrainian officials is not going to have any impact on Putin or his decisions.  (The European Union put travel bans and asset freezes on twenty-one people — still not even really a slap on the wrist.)

Additionally, US and European actions thus far have been reactive in nature.  Telling Putin “if you do this, then we may do something” is not going to deter him, especially when the actions we do take are more symbolic than practical.  We are in a period where miscalculation on either side can lead to long-term negative consequences.  Stop sending ambiguous messages and formulate specific meaningful actions.

Look, I am no former Cold Warrior looking to restore the good ol’ days of yesteryear.  Those days are gone — good riddance — and I don’t think that in this interconnected world that we will see those days again.  I do believe, however, that the world continues to be a dangerous place with dangerous people in it.  Taking Russian actions around the world in totality — support of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, support to Iran, granting temporary asylum to Edward Snowden, the nationalistic display at the Sochi Olympics, etc. etc. — means that the Russian bear must be taken seriously.  We cannot become grand foes once again, but we must have our own interests at heart and follow through on our commitments.  In my mind, we have yet to do so concerning Russia, Ukraine, and the impact on surrounding nations that we now call our friends.

Just as I think our inaction in Syria sends a signal to the world, inaction here will strengthen the misperception that the US is too tied up in domestic issues to get involved in world issues.  As a nation, it is time we put partisan politics aside, buckle our chin straps, and get into the game.

Danger, Will Robinson.  We cannot ignore it.  I am not an alarmist or war-monger, but I think we are coming up short on our understanding of Putin’s intentions.  We need to take the long view, put Putin’s actions in their historical context and work to keep his nationalistic adventurism in check.  Deterrence, not reaction is needed.  Serious economic sanctions are our best weapon.

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