By JOHN J. MEARSHEIMER MARCH 13, 2014
President Obama has decided to get tough with Russia by imposing sanctions and increasing support for Ukraine’s new government. This is a big mistake. This response is based on the same faulty logic that helped precipitate the crisis.
Instead of resolving the dispute, it will lead to more trouble.
The White House view, widely shared by Beltway insiders, is that the United States bears no responsibility for causing the current crisis. In their eyes, it’s all President Vladimir V. Putin’s fault — and his motives are illegitimate. This is wrong. Washington played a key role in precipitating this dangerous situation, and Mr. Putin’s behavior is motivated by the same geopolitical considerations that influence all great powers, including the United States.
The taproot of the current crisis is NATO expansion and Washington’s commitment to move Ukraine out of Moscow’s orbit and integrate it into the West. The Russians have intensely disliked but tolerated substantial NATO expansion, including the accession of Poland and the Baltic countries. But when NATO announced in 2008 that Georgia and Ukraine “will become members of NATO,” Russia drew a line in the sand. Georgia and Ukraine are not just states in Russia’s neighborhood; they are on its doorstep. Indeed, Russia’s forceful response in its August 2008 war with Georgia was driven in large part by Moscow’s desire to prevent Georgia from joining NATO and integrating into the West. ...
The Obama administration then made a fatal mistake by backing the protesters, which helped escalate the crisis and eventually led to the toppling of Mr. Yanukovych. A pro-Western government then took over in Kiev. The United States ambassador to Ukraine, who had been encouraging the protesters, proclaimed it “a day for the history books.”
Mr. Putin, of course, didn’t see things that way. He viewed these developments as a direct threat to Russia’s core strategic interests.
Who can blame him? After all, the United States, which has been unable to leave the Cold War behind, has treated Russia as a potential threat since the early 1990s and ignored its protests about NATO’s expansion and its objections to America’s plan to build missile defense systems in Eastern Europe.
One might expect American policymakers to understand Russia’s concerns about Ukraine joining a hostile alliance. After all, the United States is deeply committed to the Monroe Doctrine, which warns other great powers to stay out of the Western Hemisphere.
The Ukraine is to Russia kind of like a cross between what Mexico and Canada are to the U.S. The U.S. tolerated Mexico being sullenly, passively anti-American but would never ... ever ... have let it discuss joining the Warsaw Pact. (Germany's 1917 invitation to Mexico to ally against the U.S., the Zimmerman Telegram, was a big part of the casus belli.)
You'll recall that America's Monroe Doctrine has been for 191 years extremely expansive about preserving the entire Western Hemisphere (North and South America) as America's sphere of influence. When Cuba dropped into the Soviets' lap around 1960, the U.S. response was to push uncomfortably close to the brink of nuclear war in 1962. When Communists got a toehold in a couple of tiny Central American countries a few doors south of Mexico at the end of the 1970s, the U.S. response was, shall we say, unneighborly.
You could say that that was an ideological struggle, but the U.S. military mucked around in banana republics even before the October Revolution in St. Petersburg. On the other hand, it wasn't all that clear the U.S. as a whole, rather than the United Fruit Company or Brown Brothers got much out of sending the Marines to take over the customs office in Guatelombia (the Panama Canal being the clear exception). FDR knocked off invading Latin American countries for business reasons, and I can't think of how that restraint harmed the U.S. as a whole, although maybe it did.
But few American policymakers are capable of putting themselves in Mr. Putin’s shoes. This is why they were so surprised when he moved additional troops into Crimea, threatened to invade eastern Ukraine, and made it clear Moscow would use its considerable economic leverage to undermine any regime in Kiev that was hostile to Russia.
If you were born in Lwow, you wouldn't want your country to be a satellite of Russia.
Henry Kissinger talks about Finlandizing Ukraine -- Western in economy, but neutral militarily -- but it's not obvious how to get there. I don't feel like I understand all the issues involved. How do you keep Russia from dominating economically when you can't afford to keep Russia from dominating militarily? Perhaps some Finnish or Austrian readers could contribute?
When Mr. Putin explained why he was playing hardball, Mr. Obama responded that the Russian leader “seems to have a different set of lawyers making a different set of interpretations.” But the Russian leader is obviously not talking with lawyers; he sees this conflict in geopolitical, not legal terms.
|Putin won't stipulate these are Russians|
For example, the population of parts of Siberia is increasingly Chinese. It's not in the long term interest of Russia to establish a precedent that the strongest kid on the block can force a secessionist referendum on a weaker neighbor's disaffected region.
The truth is that the world has done pretty well since 1945 with the understanding that changing borders militarily is frowned upon (which is what made the Kosovo escapade so reckless). Russia is not a densely populated country, so it benefits from the international presumption that borders are not, generally speaking, up for grabs.
Perhaps if Putin wins his referendum in Crimea, he'll ... uh ... graciously ... not act upon it de jure, merely having Crimea be de jure an autonomous part of Ukraine and de facto a Russian protectorate. (A lot of foreign policy problems are sidestepped by avoiding following out the logic to its de jure conclusion. For example, the Kurds have been impressively prudent in not declaring their de jure independence from Iraq, which would alarm Turkey. Similarly, the current de jure status of Taiwan doesn't make sense, but it's kept WWIII from breaking out for 42 years, and lots of people have made a lot of money in the mean time under the de facto situation.)
Mr. Putin’s view is understandable. Because there is no world government to protect states from one another, major powers are acutely sensitive to threats — especially near their borders — and they sometimes act ruthlessly to address potential dangers. International law and human rights concerns take a back seat when vital security issues are at stake.
Mr. Obama would be advised to stop talking to lawyers and start thinking like a strategist.
Personally, I am heartened by Putin's hypocrisy. His lawyerly furtiveness is a good thing. It shows he feels guilty about stepping over the line here and understands that the world is, on the whole, better off with lines intact.
I don't want to live in a Mearsheimer World in which the powers talk like the Athenians do in Thucydides' "Melian Dialogue." I want politicians to feel a little shame and foreboding.
The Melian Dialogue is stylized account by Thucydides, the exiled Athenian general turned historian, of an incident halfway through the Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta.
The Melian Dialogue has a kind of science fiction aspect to it, of pushing a certain logic to its extreme. The Athenian fleet descends upon the small island of Melos, a colony founded by Sparta that has so far sat out the war. The Athenians demand that the Melians surrender and pay them tribute, or have their city destroyed, their men killed, and their women and children enslaved. In a conference, the Athenians explain to the Melian leaders:
For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretences - either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede [Persians], or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us - and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Lacedaemonians [Spartans], although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.
The Melians respond that it would be dishonorable, after hundreds of years of liberty, to surrender. So, the Athenians sack the city, kill the men, and enslave the women.
You can't argue with Logic.
In the long run, however, this logic didn't work out so hot for the Athenians. From Wikipedia:
Yet the Melians are also correct in trusting their kindred, the Spartans, to ultimately come to their aid. After the fall of their city, the Spartans resettled the surviving Melians on the mainland. Within a few years the Peloponnesian War resumed between Sparta and Athens, and the Melian community in exile raised funds to contribute to the Spartan war effort, which successfully destroyed the Athenian empire. The Spartan general Lysander then retook Melos and restored the Melians to their homeland.