Misunderestimating Thucydides: Why Crime[a] and Punishment for Russia will only get the West so far

Whenever I’m perplexed after reading something in the news, I typically turn to a much older set of papers for some context and sometimes, for some inspiration. As told by Thucydides:

The good faith, Lacedaemonians, which characterizes your political conduct and private intercourse towards each other, makes you the less disposed to hearken to what may be said to the prejudice of others; and from this, indeed, you derive a sober-minded moderation, but you labour always under a great misconception of the affairs of other States.

Thucydides was recounting the Corinthians’ address to the Spartan Senate, where they were comparing the Spartans with the Athenians. To the Corinthians, Sparta assumes that since they have a working constitution and a way of life that suits them well, they do not have to change their ways to confront this new issue: the growth of Athenian power. While this attitude is seen as being “moderate,” the Corinthians point out that this shows a kind of ignorance when it comes to foreign affairs.

Whether this account of the Corinthians addressing the Spartan Senate is 100% accurate or not is inconsequential. What it reveals though, is a recurring pattern in History: States and their leaders, try as they may, often misunderstand or do not consider the goals, actions and intentions of other States and their leaders. What does this have to do with Russia?

The idea that allowing the Russians to hold onto the Crimea suggests some huge decline in American power is strange, considering that in 1989, the United States’ power only reached as far as Bavaria; and if you look at the map below this one, you'll see that it now surrounds Russia on almost all sides.

The idea that allowing the Russians to hold onto the Crimea suggests some huge decline in American power is strange, considering that in 1989, the United States’ power only reached as far as Bavaria; and if you look at the map below this one, you’ll see that it now surrounds Russia on almost all sides.

Post Cold War

Voice: “Knock knock”
Putin: “Who’s there?”
Voice: “NATO”

We’ve treated the Russians as a potential threat since the 90s. We’ve expanded NATO to its doorstep, and we’re working on building missile defense systems in Eastern Europe, all to their protest.  And then comes Ukraine, where the U.S. and a coalition of Western governments backed and encouraged protesters that led to the overthrow of a sitting president that kept close ties with Russia, which was soon replaced by an interim government hostile to Russia.  What did Putin think about all of that?  Could this happen to his own government; was Kyiv a dress rehearsal for Moscow?  I suppose you’ll have to ask Putin himself, but it’s likely that he at least entertained the thought.

You’d expect American policymakers to at least try to understand Russian concerns about Ukraine joining an alliance with traditionally adversarial powers (i.e. greater cooperation with the E.U. and NATO). Obama pundits have made the argument that the President invited this crisis in Ukraine because he didn’t take a firmer stance on Syria and chose to pull out of Iraq.  This is absolutely ridiculous.  Even if Obama had bombed Syria, he still would be faced with this situation in Ukraine, and he would have been holding the same cards.  Perhaps pundits forget that the last President’s “firm stance,” a rapid expansion of the National Security state and invading two countries, did not stop Putin from invading Georgia.   Russia’s move in Georgia in ’08 and Crimea today is understandable if you accept that most powers do not like hostile governments on their borders and that most powers are always looking to maintain or grow their sphere of influence.  After all, the United States is deeply committed to the Monroe Doctrine, which warns other great powers to stay out of the Western Hemisphere, or else.  Like how Canada and Mexico are to us, Georgia and Ukraine aren’t just any states close to Russia’s neighborhood; they’re on its doorstep.  Over here, we live in a country with the Atlantic to our West, the Pacific to our East, Mexico at the bottom and Canada at the top.  That’s geography, and it’s not changing.  We have it pretty good over here.  If you’re Russia though, with Germany and NATO on one side, China on the other, and Japan breathing down your neck, it’s a different story altogether.

So the polls are in and we moved to another stage of this Crimean crisis: the Crimean Parliament declared independence from Ukraine, 97% of Crimean voters favored joining Russia, the Parliament formally asked Russia to join the Russian Federation, and the Kremlin signed legislation sealing the deal. Crimea is gone.  Whatever comes next, we have few options to “punish” Russia, at least in the short term, and Putin knows it.

For one, the Europeans aren’t super excited about “crippling” sanctions; London and Cyrpus really like all of that Russian money in its banking system, and from what I’ve gathered, major arteries that feed Europe’s natural gas supply flow through Ukraine, from Russia.  And all of the Western governments are trying to pass legislation to secure a bailout for Ukraine, but when has our Congress ever agreed on anything, especially when right now we’re looking for things to cut, not add to, the deficit?   And if the history of sanctions has taught us anything, it’s that regimes are willing to endure a tremendous amount of pain to secure what they see as their vital interests.

Germany relies on Russia for three-quarters of its oil and gas imports.  Sanctions on Russia could be painful for everyone.

Germany relies on Russia for three-quarters of its oil and gas imports. Sanctions on Russia could be painful for everyone.

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t implement the tools that we have and are willing to use.  But it seems to me there’s little we can do about Russia’s annexation of Crimea.  Economic sanctions?  Installing missile defense systems in Eastern Europe?  Seizing assets of Putin’s friends?  Giving the Ukrainians foreign aid [and who aren’t exactly innocent in this affair, and are only united by their hatred for Yanukovych and Putin]?  Go for it.  But the reality is we’re not going to war over Crimea, and Obama has publicly stated that we will not go to war over Ukraine.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying Russia is “back.”  Mitt Romney’s comment on Russia being America’s “number one geopolitical foe” falls short (but Obama was also wrong to snub him the way that he did).   This is not to say that Russia doesn’t matter, but let’s not give them too much credit: Russia may be playing geopolitical chess, but he’s playing defense.  This move in Crimea was a move made from weakness.   Ukraine has slowly been moving away from Russia, and inching toward the West.   The West hasn’t lost Ukraine.  Europe hasn’t lost Ukraine.  The United States hasn’t lost Ukraine.  Putin lost Ukraine, and he knows it.   So to save face he took a short term gain (Crimea, and saber rattling towards Eastern Ukraine) but a long term loss, and Russian influence over the rest of Europe will suffer.

Formal Ukrainian elections are going to be held in May, and it’s unlikely that any new government will be a Yanukovych; but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be respectful to its [Russian] minorities and nudge Russia on with provocative gestures.   The reality is that the stability of Ukraine cannot be guaranteed with at least some level of cooperation with Russia.   After all, Ukraine is “the borderland.”  Point is, we can talk about punishing Russia all we want, but decent relations with Moscow are imperative.  We need their help with Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, and soon, maybe even China. Anyone who thinks this is just about Ukraine has to stop thinking like a lawyer and more like a strategist.  Thucydides would’ve understood that.

Sidenote: Though the current crisis in Ukraine is complex, we should remember that everything can always be worse.   As per an agreement signed in Budapest in 1994, Ukraine has gotten rid of all their nuclear weapons, and just two years ago eliminated all of their weapons-grade materiel.  A document signed 20 years ago prevented this from becoming a nuclear crisis. And now that’s one less thing we have to think about.

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