We’ve been here before, we and the Russians. We’ve stood eyeball to eyeball, playing double-dare in international politics, mostly in Eastern Europe, plotting just how far we can push the other guy before he pushes back.
Back then we called it the Cold War. We didn’t think the possibility of another Cold War would loom quite so quickly, but it has.
By and large, we got the last one right. What do we do now?
Just before the Sochi Olympics, I published another post on What Makes the Russians Tick?, stressing that the differences between us and the Russians have little to do with Vladimir Putin and a lot to do with a millennium of history and a deep cultural divide.
As I noted, this is far from my usual beat. But before I returned to the Midwest, I spent a journalistic career bookended by the Cold War, starting with the building of the Berlin Wall and ending with the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. I spent seven years living in the Communist countries of the East, and many more years in the West, including four years covering NATO from Brussels. What follows is the application to the Ukrainian crisis of some of what I learned then, and what we should do.
Generally, I feel that Putin has made a titanic mistake, that he’s making it up as he goes along, that he’s vulnerable to serious opposition within Russia, and that if we wait it out, applying some modest pressure and not doing anything stupid in return, he will back down.
It’s important to remember that the Ukraine crisis, like the Cold War itself, was started by the Russians and will be ended by the Russians. The most we can do is to create the conditions for that end.
As president and prime minister, Putin has been in power 14 years now, which is when most leaders lose touch with the real world and start making major mistakes. Putin himself seems to have evolved from a fairly shrewd politician into a radical nationalist bent on re-establishing Russia as a major power, respected and feared by the rest of the world.
This is why he spent $50 billion on the Sochi games, to restore Russia to the global podium. Putin has called the breakup of the Soviet Union a geopolitical tragedy. He clearly means to undo that tragedy and to erase the humiliation of the West’s victory—to show that Russia is back!
Except it’s not. If that $50 billion was meant to restore Russia’s international prestige, it has just been blown by Putin’s Ukraine adventure. If the Olympics were a mistake, that mistake has just been squared and cubed by his reaction to the events in Kiev.
Putin, propelled by his nationalistic resentment of the West, clearly sees the Kiev coup as a plot hatched in Washington and Brussels. The West certainly feels that Ukraine has the right to erect closer political and economic ties with whomever it chooses, just as it felt that post-Communist Poland had the right to frame its own foreign policy and pick its own allies, up to and including membership in NATO.
Ukraine is not going to join NATO, if only because Washington and the other NATO nations know that this would only pick needlessly at the scab of Russian resentment.
But Ukraine is a sovereign nation now, with the right to pick its friends. The rest of the world recognizes this—the Europeans, China, certainly Georgia and the other countries that, with Ukraine, once belonged to the Soviet Union. Russia, which is basically a country without friends, has no allies in this squabble.
Putin has backed himself into a corner. If he pulls out of Crimea empty-handed, he will look weak. If he actually invades Ukraine, he is inviting a war there which the Russian economy is in no shape to support. At the least, he is driving Poland, the Baltics, and the Central Asian republics closer to the West. Russia, unlike the Soviet Union, is part of the global economy: if the crisis escalates, it will pay heavily in trade and investment losses.
And in the meantime, Putin undoubtedly is getting major flak from his friends back home—from government officials who remember the Cold War and know that Russia will never win a faceoff with the West, and from the oligarchs, the new super-rich who are Putin’s most important supporters. These oligarchs don’t dictate Kremlin policy. But they depend on visas to the West and on the ability to keep their money in Western banks. Putin’s Ukraine adventure threatens those privileges, and they won’t be happy about this.
So what do we do now? Pretty much what we did during the Cold War, which was to sit tight, be patient, and wait for this big mistake to come to its pre-determined end.
During the Cold War, this was called containment. This policy assumed that Communism was founded on error and doomed to failure: if we contained it, pushing back when necessary but taking no unnecessary risks, sooner or later it would collapse under its own weight. Despite some major errors of our own along the way, this is what happened in the end.
The situation facing Putin now is similar to the one that faced Nikita Khrushchev after he got caught in another stupid mistake—putting missiles into Cuba in 1962. The United States said the missiles couldn’t stay, but gave Khrushchev a face-saving out, by offering to remove its own and unneeded missiles from Turkey. Khrushchev seized the offer, but his biographer, William Taubman, says that Khrushchev’s colleagues back in Moscow were furious with him for humiliating the Soviet Union. Within two years, they ousted him as Soviet leader.
Similarly, we could offer Putin a face-saving out, possibly recognizing Crimea as an autonomous region within Ukraine. This would enable Putin to declare victory and pull back. But nobody in Moscow would be fooled. Putin has made Russia look like a bully, and an incompetent one at that.
Russia is no democracy, but as many tsars learned over the centuries, it has its ways of getting rid of leaders who have stayed too long or made too many mistakes. Putin, after 14 years, is tired and irrational. He’s on his way out. Our job is not to stand in his way.