ABC The Drum
However unsettling, Russia's actions are not irrational. In many ways they are the foreseeable reaction to the West's decisions since the collapse of the Soviet Empire, writes
The conventional wisdom among western pundits and politicians says the Ukrainian crisis is entirely Vladimir Putin's fault and the West is blameless.
Russia's military incursion in Crimea, warns the Wall Street Journal, is a "blitzkrieg" that "brings the threat of war to the heart of Europe". Putin, according to Hillary Clinton is acting just like Hitler in the late 1930s. Moscow, editorialises the Financial Times, has started a "new Cold War". Now, it is widely argued, President Barack Obama must get tough with the Kremlin and intensify political, economic and strategic relations with the new Ukrainian Government.
Throughout this crisis, however, there has been very little attempt to take into account Russia's susceptibilities and its attempt to protect what it perceives as its vital strategic interests. If anything, as several distinguished professors of international relations, such as John Mearsheimer (Chicago University) and Stephen Walt (Harvard University), have made clear, this crisis stems from decisions made by Washington and Brussels since the collapse of the Soviet Empire more than two decades ago.
Start with the expansion of NATO eastwards and Washington's decision to deploy ballistic missile defences in Russia's neighbourhood.
The Atlantic Alliance was a magnificent achievement in containing a real and formidable enemy. But the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the end of the Cold War meant there was no clear and present danger to justify NATO expansion during the past two decades. Post-Communist Russia, remember, was not hostile, not an ideological rival and not militarily formidable. Yet the Clinton administration led the effort to extend alliance guarantees to nations that had been in Moscow's orbit for generations. As many sound observers from different political and ideological stripes argued in the 1990s, the NATO expansion was bound to create the very danger it was intended to prevent.
It was provocative enough for the West to expand NATO to Poland and the Baltic states in the 1990s. It was even more provocative to try to push NATO to Russia's next door. Which is precisely what happened in April 2008 when Brussels declared that Georgia and Ukraine would become part of NATO.
Not surprisingly, Moscow objected; and that set the scene for its incursion in Georgia in August of that year. By clashing with South Ossetia, the emotion-charged Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, gave the Russians an excuse to meddle in its former constituent republic on its critical southern frontier.
Which brings us to the current crisis. Last November, Ukraine's president Viktor Yanukovych signed an EU deal that was designed to deepen his nation's integration with the West. Faced with limited Russian involvement in an area that it had long deemed its own sphere of influence, Putin offered Kiev a better deal that included $15 billion aid and subsidised gas and oil. That agreement sparked protests in western Ukraine, where there are pro-western sympathies.
But, as Mearsheimer and Walt point out, it was here when Obama and his advisers miscalculated badly: Washington actively backed the protestors, so much so that Obama's secretary of state in the region, Victoria Nuland, was handing out pastries to the anti-government protestors on the streets. Such interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state helped escalate the crisis and led to Yanukovych, the democratically elected (albeit corrupt and thuggish) prime minister, being ousted from power. A pro-western government, with no democratic legitimacy and ties to ultra-nationalists, took over in Kiev.
This recent history is important in understanding the Russian response. Sure, the West did not start the protests that led to Yanukovych's downfall. But the fact that the US and the EU thought they could encourage the protestors and help engineer the removal of a democratically elected and pro-Russian leader in Ukraine and then expect Putin to accept this state of affairs indicates what Walt has called a "remarkable combination of hubris and naiveté" on the Obama administration's part.
This error was compounded when one considers Washington's very few options to counter Russia's intervention. It can't embrace the Kosovo strategy in 1999 of bombing Moscow into submission: Americans, much less the Europeans, have no stomach for another war. Nor are many European nations enthusiastic about costly sanctions against Russia.
Once again, the US and the EU failed to look at the events from Moscow's perspective, and how they represented a serious threat to Russian strategic interests. That is why so many people in the West have been so shocked by Putin's military incursion in Crimea and his attempts to use Moscow's leverage to undermine any government in Kiev that was pro-US in Russia's near abroad.
However unsettling, Russia's actions are not irrational. Nor are they akin to Hitler's march through Europe. In fact, from a diplomatic history perspective, Russia's conduct is understandable.
Why? Because, notwithstanding claims that a new world order heralded the triumph of national self-determination, the international system remains anarchic. As foreign policy realists all too often argue, there is no world government to protect states from each other. The United Nations does not replace power politics; it disguises them. So when great powers are sensitive to dangers in their backyard, so to speak, they will sometimes respond ruthlessly to address those threats. This is especially the case when vital interests are at stake.
And for Russia, unlike the US, there is a vital issue at stake in Ukraine. Leave aside deep historical ties between the two countries. Ethnic Russians number nearly 60 per cent of the population in Crimea. Russia's naval base for the Black Sea Fleet is based in Sevastopol, Crimea. And Ukraine is a next-door neighbour that is a conduit for Russian trade.
Some western pundits on left and right insist that Russia lost the Cold War, so it should simply get over its loss. Yet it is the US and NATO themselves that have been unable to leave the Cold War behind. By expanding NATO eastwards, deploying American missiles into Eastern Europe, interfering in the internal affairs in Russia's near abroad, Washington and Brussels have treated Russia as a potential threat and failed to understand how those decisions look from Moscow's perspective. Imagine how Washington would respond if another great power extended its military alliance to Central America or interfered in the internal affairs of northern Mexico.
Lest I be accused of being soft on Russia, let me stress I am not defending Moscow's unilateral violation of international law. Nor am I indulging in some kind of moral equivalence that all too often discredited western intellectuals during the Cold War. Putin is a thug and dictator whereas America remains, as Lincoln declared, "the last best hope of earth".
I am merely pointing out that Washington and the West are far from blameless in this crisis. They have violated Winston Churchill's principle: "In victory, magnanimity." The British prime minister was no softy, but he recognised the folly of grinding the face of a defeated foe in the dirt. Obama should bear that wise maxim in mind and tone down the bombast as he prepares to respond to Putin's moves.
This article was originally published at ABC The Drum