Putin’s Revanchist Crimean Gamble After Sochi

Putin Attacks Ukraine

1. an advocate or supporter of a political policy of revanche, especially in order to seek vengeance for a previous military defeat.
2. of or pertaining to a political policy of revanche;
3. of or pertaining to revanchists or revanchism.

Sometime between February 21st and February 22nd, Vladimir Putin decided to violate the settled international order. By all evidence, like Andropov and Ustinov over Afghanistan in Dec. 1979, his rump war cabinet was insular: FSB Chairman Bortnikov, Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov and very few others.

He started a war of aggression on Ukraine and against the Western international system. He chose war for both internal and external reasons. He gambles that he can improvise more skillfully than Western coalitions. Any Western pressure he judges will not be much or last long. He can also use pressure for internal consolidation ala his speech denouncing internal opposition as a “5th column”. So far his assumptions aren’t markedly off.

Why War, Why Now?

Ukraine’s Maidan in February 2013 toppled a key pillar of Putin’s foreign policy, luring Ukraine into his orbit with $15 billion in loans. Maidan also halted Putin’s effort to transform Ukrainian President Yanukovich into a Putinist authoritarian.

Far worse, however, was Maidan’s challenge to Putin’s domestic legitimacy. Berkut and Yanukovich’s rout ignited a firestorm in Russian state media. Soon Russians began circulating images of burning tires in Russian cities on the Internet as pro-Maidan support. Maidan’s power over Russian imagination can be seen in how Russian FSB/GRU troops and ‘militas’ ritually and deliberately re-enacted Maidan’s iconic imagery in reverse. Putin’s regime largely rests on controlling Russian media and its messaging. Crushing Maidan’s narrative became a matter of perceived regime survival, and remained the Alpha and Omega for initial invasion AgitProp goals.

Putin did act impulsively. He used an off the shelf plan to seize Crimea that almost certainly was a long standing Russian contingency should Ukraine ever join NATO. He deliberately excluded his Ministry (Minister) of Foreign Affairs. Later he famously refused to take Lavrov’s phone call from London. Tactical impulsiveness doesn’t mean Putin lacks a long term conceptual goal. Putin does have an ideology which he’s promoted within ruling circles by assigning specific books to read. When Angela Merkle and Madeleine Albright say “Putin lives in his own world” what they’re saying is “Putin isn’t following our own preconceptions”. It’s an alarming lack of understanding.

What Does Putin Want?

Putin’s goal is to rebuild a Slavic civilization as equal and eventually dominant opponent to the West. His rejection isn’t merely post-Soviet bitterness but as spiritual and racial superior. Perhaps fanciful. He promotes murky (even incoherent) Slavic ideologies drenched in mysticism. Collectively, they are a mishmash and do not spell out a coherent strategic plan. Yet that pastiche arguably forms a generalized North Star under which he improvises or makes isolated tactical decisions. His self-pitying speeches about Russia’s past slights and grievances he writes himself. They’re from the heart. They’re also manipulative red meat for his new nationalism.

Western leaders don’t grasp that Putin’s aims are beyond just ‘re-inventing the Soviet Union’ with his Custom’s Union. His long term ambition is far more profound from his point of view. His proposed Union “from Lisbon to Vladivostok” – in his own words – repeats Slavic ideologues’ calls for a Slavic Eurasia “from Lisbon to Vladivostok”. *He’s* not talking about a EU 2.0 even if he knows others will think so. Here’s an English version of the vision from Dugin, a Putin-favored Slavic ideologue.

Putin’s public rejection of the West in Crimea may have been premature. But that was always his intent. True, he talks often about BRICs as an alternative geopolitical home. Or even just China. These tactical adjustments always support the longer term goal of civilizational independence and rejecting the West.

The West mistakes what he does for what he is. For example, many who’ve dealt with him in purely transactional terms proclaim he’s a pragmatist. Others assert he’s merely profoundly cynical. Putin and his then-new propaganda chief Volodin in 2012 concocted a ersatz nationalism seen in today’s Russian chauvinism, new patriotism and racism. Many interpret it all as a ploy to crush domestic dissent after protests greeted his 2012 re-election. Or to distract Russians from the economic circumstances. Both may be true and still miss the larger point. Putin’s 2012 return marked a broad range of personnel changes and programs that align with his long term renewal concept. Sometimes ‘good’ politics also coincides with good policy (from his point of view).

Then again, Russians misrepresent Putin, too. Journalist Anton Krasovsky:

“People say that Putin doesn’t care what the west thinks; that’s nonsense. He does care, and he doesn’t understand the hatred towards him from the West, which he feels has no basis. In Sochi, he organised what he saw as an incredible Olympics and people still criticised him for it. It’s partly a generational and civilisational thing. He wishes he could go back to the era when he could just drink wine and have fun with Berlusconi. He just doesn’t understand why people criticise him so much.

We assert his specific actions should be evaluated within the above framework. Many mock Sochi as economically nonsensical. For Putin, revitalizing Russian nationalism on a global scale and wedding it to him is priceless. Sochi was always about Russian self-esteem. The international audiences being props for the acting out. Crimea and what is to come are further extensions. His domestic approval ratings authentically may be almost 80%.

History shows that revanchist regimes are unusually popular while successful. And remain so while the regime can point to further successes or threats. The psychology of grievance and its relief forge strong ties between ruled and ruler. The Corporal only began to lose public support in 1943. In April 1945 estimates are that 10% of the population still proclaimed allegiance. Others elsewhere had longer runs. The Soviet regime continued for a decade after Brezhnev’s ‘era of stagnation’ became undeniable.

Will Putin manufacture more conflict? Not necessarily. He hopes the West caves early and returns to business as usual. Should we deploy a new containment, he will test it with provocations and overtures. His challenge then is managing discontent should economic sluggishness endure. Putin’s family suffered tragedy during Leningrad’s siege. He and others will believe Russian capacity to endure privation far greater than the West’s.

Sanctions won’t convince Putin to change course. He will use Western pressure to strengthen his domestic position. Putin has already demonstrated he believes the Russian economy is subordinate to his goals. Some regime figures call for using Western sanctions as pretext to assist the State to direct re-building non-existent domestic manufacturing. (At best, a modern oligarchical corrupt NEP). Foreign pressure also assists cracking down on potentially independent actors, whether oligarchs with foreign exposure or what’s left of the so-called ‘liberal opposition’. Putin’s invasion bought him substantial but not infinite time to weather Russia’s from 1.2% economic growth – or lower.

Now consider the conceptual gap among Obama, the West and Putin. Who’s surprised Putin ignored Obama and Kerry’s public “off ramp” offerings?

Who’s To Blame? And What’s Next?

Mistakes were made by all sides: Europe, Kiev, Moscow and the U.S. Their magnitude unforeseen because parties did not fully grasp the agenda and priorities of the other.

The EU Americans generally don’t understand the EU well. We tend to confuse the Brussels permanent apparat or European Parliament with the actual member country governments. For years Brussels’ EU bureaucracy pursued their imperative for EU expansion via meetings, agreements and other symbolic formalities. As the EU moved farther East it seemed its actions were unconnected with actual member country support. Ukraine underscores the disconnect. Many member countries opposed Ukrainian overtures or key players like Germany indifferent. The EU merely flirted with a nation of blatant core Russian interest and sensitivities.

In November 2013, the EU and Ukraine’s then-President Yanukovich met to sign a Partnership Agreement in Vilnius. His signature was to culminate years of laborious conversations. Yanukovich promised Ukrainians many times he would sign. He balked at the last minute. The EU, lacking focused member state support, couldn’t offer Yanukovich or Ukraine, a failed State, anything tangible – no money, no aid. Just words and sentiment.

Putin by contrast offered Kiev $15 billion in hard cash loans and gas discounts. Contingent on Yanukovich walking away in Vilnius. Putin played traditional hard ball politics and won “cleanly” by putting his wallet where his mouth was. When Yanukovich walked, outraged students flocked to Kiev in protest and ignited Maidan’s drama.

Europeans were as surprised as anyone by Maiden and Ukrainian protesters’ EU flags and face paint. (Who wears EU flags in Europe?) The EU and Europe didn’t understand flirtation with Ukraine could have such consequences. The EU belatedly promised 11 billion euro to Kiev after Putin invaded. Had it done so at Vilnius almost everything since would have been different. The EU’s suitability or even competence as a geo-political actor must be in fundamental question.

Moscow Russian mistakes are less understandable even before invasion. Beating the EU for Yanukovich’s allegiance a classic game of Great Power politics. Yet Maidan surprised Moscow, too. Russian FSB and SVR penetration of Ukraine’s institutions deep. Millions of Russians and Ukrainians are intermarried, watch each others television and even the languages are not far apart. Yet Moscow completely misread the volatile political situation. Worse, Moscow continued to rely on Yanukovich to execute its ill-fated Maidan crackdown – even when his unsuitability (from Moscow’s point of view) obvious to all.

Sochi’s revelries and obligations doubtlessly hampered Putin’s focus. What intelligence and MFA reports made it back to Moscow accurately? Did Putin received timely warnings? Ukraine showcases a strategic failure of the Russian intelligence product cycle. Failure could be in collection, analysis or users’ misuse or disregard. We suspect it was the later two. Primakov years ago conceded that Soviet and then Russian intelligence lacked any meaningful independent analytical function. Soviet ideology precluded independent voices. He vowed to build it. Given the inclusion of FSB Chairman Bortnikov in Putin’s war cabinet, access to Putin isn’t the issue. If “Putin doesn’t have all the informaton”, Primakov’s diagnosis remains true under Putin’s nationalism, too.

In the end, Putin chose impulsive attack. Could he have waited? Ukraine 2004, Libya, Egypt, etc. show that bottom-driven protest movements rarely succeed as actual governing forces. Movements usually disintegrate or become corrupt themselves. Had he waited for Maidan’s likely collapse, this “rational” Putin could have renewed the $15 billion pledge as Big Brother savior. Putin would gain all of Ukraine. If Maidan unexpectedly formed a working government, the ‘rational’ Putin still could have waited. He would encourage Ukraine to have soft ties to West, clarify no NATO, and wait for the EU to bail out Kiev and modernize her economy. When she was rebuilt, he could have then courted a healthier and better run Kiev.

Such a ‘rational’ calculus suggests Putin won’t likely attack Southeastern Ukraine or the East. Regardless how the scenario plays out (including a full Ukraine occupation, etc.) Putin ironically would be the one putting NATO on his borders.

He couldn’t wait. As we noted. Maidan’s overthrow of a neighboring authoritarian regime too threatening to his domestic position. Regarding further operations in Ukraine, the jury is out. He’s still evaluating Western responses. Putin the improviser doesn’t believe he’s met strong Western resistance yet. Plus, the West should not underestimate the emotional, cultural and ideological factors underscoring uniting Ukrainians, including Kiev’s role as ‘cradle’ to and origin for Rus (modern Russia). We don’t think he will try a full scale assault on Kiev because the Russian army is in poor operational shape (Crimea a GRU Spetnaz and FSB operation mostly). More likely he will probe or push more limited objectives like a land bridge to Crimea.

Putin temporarily set back his own goal of Slavic unification. Kiev renounced participating in his Customs Union. As of today – Crimea is Putin’s strategic defeat. Euphorics in Moscow compare Crimea to victory in Berlin. Yet that mood will not last forever. Putin the improviser will be looking for ways to win back Kiev and turn defeat into victory. The West should support Ukraine as a geopolitical glacis with deep, visible economic and other assistance (modulating IMF obsession with clinical austerity). An enduring pro-Western, reformed Kiev (not necessarily in NATO) will be a monument to Putin’s impulsiveness. And a model for future Russians to see and embrace.

Ukraine Yanukovich’s mistakes are well documented.

U.S. Again we see the “lead from behind” problem. The U.S. misjudged encouraging the EU as Western proxy flirt with Kiev. First, as noted, because of EU foreign policy competence issues. Secondly, the U.S. accurately perceived years ago its visibility would provoke Moscow. That should have been a wake up call about the policy’s essential soundness. Initial U.S. visibility might have triggered tensions or even a crisis with Moscow at the outset. Or shut the venture down. That early clarity at a smaller and manageable scale far better than stumbling into war.

The U.S. response should be on two levels. Russia isn’t a Soviet Union superpower. Russia’s own military experts’ believe power projection is limited to ‘local conflicts’. Regional and global operations are not options for now. The economy isn’t a major world player beyond natural resources. And Russia lacks a global, universal ideological appeal like the Soviets. Russia’s threat doesn’t warrant a second world-wide American Cold War militarization.

We need a new kind of containment. It will be more complicated than before. Russia is more integrated in European economies than 1947-1991. Ideologically, we need to be blunt about his authoritarian regime and expose its corruption. We need to re-affirm commitment to liberal democracy as a superior society even with our obvious room for improvements. We should avoid the temptation to allow Putin to define our agenda and distract from larger U.S. global priorities or opportunities. Joining Putin in his dark Manichean agenda a mistake.

Economically, sanctions are fine for initial salvos. They will not force a change in behavior. But over time they will bite. Overt, immediate economic assistance to Ukraine is essential. Ukrainians must see benefit rejecting Putinism even if work and sacrifice are required to reach them. Other countries in Eastern Europe need assistance as well. Specific, tangible economic assistance is the best inoculation against Russian adventurism. Lessening European energy dependence of Russian gas is a test of resolve. Canceling the South Stream Russian gas pipeline would be a clear first signal signal.

Militarily, increased, visible U.S. and NATO presence in Eastern Europe should begin yesterday. There is no need to return to Cold War force levels, aggressiveness and associated tensions. The U.S. also should encourage regional military cross ties among countries in Eastern Europe. We believe reconsidering BMD in Europe is appropriate as well.

NATO also should re-evaluate doctrine and force posture to address Russian interior lines of communication and maskirovka. NATO chain of command must be reformed to allow swift operational response. This would allow NATO to counter Russian ability to alter ground truth before coalitions like NATO can react. Russian invasions in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and now Crimea illustrate how much importance Russians place on their faster decision cycle.

Likely Just Round One

We believe this is a new protracted conflict. Putin will probe Western reaction and coalition cohesion with new tests and provocations but not necessarily immediately. Putin and Russia signaled disdain for the settled international order in Crimea. Future actions will expand on this demarcation in new and especially psychological dimensions. Putin’s agenda will be tear down or damage the Western international position – or its perception.

Most actions won’t be military or even paramilitary. The West should expect Russia, for example, to seek BRIC alternatives to Western institutions. Chinese reluctance to embrace Putin in public on his challenge to Western international norms will likely change. Covert and overt cooperation should be expected. Other states will use tensions to further their own geostrategic purpurposes. Russia will look for strategic surprise or stage managed perceptions of creeping inevitability.

This really isn’t the Cold War again. In some ways it may be more difficult. Confronting revanchism in Europe is a challenge not seen for over 75 years. Pundits often use the word. It’s vital that its implications are truly absorbed.


  1. Aldershot says

    Very informative, Doc. Do you have any sympathy for the viewpoint that Putin it trying to be a player? He was instrumental in Obama’s saving of face over red line in Syria, he has courted Iran, and I think has had a hand in Obama’s ‘going to Iran’ moment (figurative, as yet). Do we still need the Northern route out of Afgh?

    I think the biggest piece of the puzzle is the problems Sunnis cause places like Iran, China, Russia, Europe, US, etc. I think this is a problem that need containment, and countries should be working together.

    • DoctorLeoStrauss says

      Putin acts out of self interest. It’s a Western and American conceit to view his actions through our prism. For example, Putin many times explained to Russian audiences that helping the West to throw money and lives away in Afghanistan and also kill some Taliban was good for Russia all around.

      Russia’s influence on Syria and Iran is usually exaggerated. There’s no indication Moscow could have delivered Assad to negotiations when it would have mattered years ago. American vacillation ensured the current outcome (pro or con).

      Putin did not save Obama’s face – that’s also an American narrative. Putin exposed Obama’s superficiality on a global stage. And is seen as having kept Assad intact, who essentially won the war on the ground. US influence in the region in tatters, beyond inevitable post Iraq, Afghan drawdowns.

      Iran’s internal dynamics and demographic challenges to the Tehran regime are probably more important than Moscow. The sanctions bite. Iran is more willing to at least go through the motions of an opening because they known American power is ebbing and will not return to the region in any conceivable future. Smart Russian diplomacy is to take credit for what is going to happen.

      Putin’s thinking evolved in at least 3 stages, 1999-2004, 2005-09/10/11/12 and 2012-present. By 2005-08, his essential revanchism and visceral, passionately emotional resentment of U.S. firmly in place. Speeches he gave then could be given in 2014 and fit right in. The claim that protests to his re-election in 2012 triggered the crackdown misplaced. During his time as shadow president (2008-12) he decided to abandon liberal market solutions for economic development and turn to State models (Russian, Soviet and Asian).

      Wahhabism is a virulent ideology to be sure. Russians tend to call anyone inconvenient to them that. Russian authoritarian chauvinism and expansionism probably the best recruiting card. Not quite Serb Orthodox ethnic cleansing but even the FSB concedes, Russian slavs are signing up now (as a protest to the regime).

      • Aldershot says

        I appreciate your first-hand knowledge of the political topography. Please keep the Realputin coming :)

  2. brendan says

    Great Post.

    I think what your post neglects to mention and which the majority of commentators have failed to mention is the effect of the Bush and Obama doctrines on Putin’s decision to invade Crimea.

    The invasion of Iraq, whatever we did in Libya, the very real threats to bomb Syria, and most importantly, the worldwide campaign to murder anyone, anywhere, for any reason, or no reason at all.

    Iraq could have been dismissed as the misguided adventure of an ignorant leader. But now President Obama has established the international norm that the powerful will do as they choose, kill who they want, violate state sovereignty, spy on everyone, all in the pursuit of naked self-interest (of elites).

    It is Obama’s complete contempt for the rule of law and international norms that is the but-for, if not proximate cause (natural and foreseeable consequence), of Putin’s annexation of Crimea.

    True, we have always preached hypocrisy; do as we say, not as we do. But I feel viscerally that we have reached a tipping point where our hypocrisy is so overwhelming and embarrassing that it has actually become our greatest geo-political liability. (See Obama’s failed attempt to distinguish Iraq from Crimea, ignoring the largest difference: >500,000 dead vs. 1 person).

    Putin’s annexation is just a particularly bellicose way of saying: The Emperor Has No Clothes.

  3. sglover says

    Glad to see you don’t put all your output in tweets, now. I’m also glad that you’re discussing a topic that I’m especially interested in. I’ve been to Ukraine three times since 2001, and about 18 months ago I was in Sevastopol. Got to review the whole Russian Black Sea fleet courtesy of a one dollar harbor ferry! Unfortunately there’s no market any more for photos of top-heavy radar masts and whomping big missile tubes, so the trip didn’t pay for itself… I’m still in contact with several Ukrainians, from Crimea and north of Kiev, and they hold a variety of views about Maidan and events since.

    Apologies in advance, this might be long…

    Things might change very much over the next few months, but I don’t think it’s quite proper to call pre-Maidan Ukraine a “failed state”. The Ukraine I saw in 2001 very much fit the bill. Back then you couldn’t miss the symptoms of social implosion — public drunkeness like I’ve never seen, packs of feral kids who’d cause adults to visibly tense up in their presence, beggars **everywhere**, babushkas standing around markets selling plastic bags for kopeks. I saw none of that on my more recent trip, and when I travel, I try to look around. I walk or take public transit everywhere, through neighborhoods, anywhere curiosity takes me. On the whole people seemed about as well off as they do are in Mexican border towns that I’ve visited, and considerably better off than folks in some neighborhoods I’ve seen in the Peruvian Andes. Ukraine does have many serious deficiencies, but are Mexico and Peru failed states? I know you’re not the kind of provincial who writes off any place less glossy than Bethesda as Third World.

    I’m not sure I buy your portrayal of Putin’s strategy. It seems to me that in this Ukraine episode he’s been essentially reactive, making tactical responses to events as they pop up. And that’s pretty much how he’s always acted, has to act, given the hand that Russia’s been dealt. I’m not enchanted by the absorption of Crimea, for pretty much the same reason that I wasn’t enchanted by American adventures during my lifetime. But… I can understand why he’d view Maidan as just the latest and closest of a series of NATO encroachments, one that required a — what’s the phrase we use? — “red line”.

    Putin’s take on the Maidan events isn’t really that far off-base. Maidan’s not all fascist Banderists, and it sure isn’t a CIA creation (like they have the competence?!?!) And Yanukovych is a nobody. But the circumstances of his overthrow are **not** beyond question. He **was** elected via a ballot that was generally described as free and fair. In Ukraine! He only had about a year to go before new elections, and he’d offered to move those up by months. Oh, and elements of the Maidan crowd (though by no means all, or even most) were tossing Molotov cocktails and taking cops hostage. How well would that play in, say, London or DC or Berlin? Hell, the Occupy Wall Street crowd just **camped out**, but that was enough for Eric Holder to rally more law enforcement people than he ever used to, you know, investigate financial crimes. But I digress….

    This phrase — “Putin reveling in Sochi did not help” — disappoints me. The Olympics are sanctimonious bullshit, but show me the state that **hasn’t** preened and strutted when it hosts the event. Further, I gotta say, before anybody’d ever heard of Maidan I was struck by the tone of American media towards Sochi. It was invariably, and weirdly, condescending, critical, smug. I don’t recall China getting the same treatment. I was really puzzled by it — where’s this gratuitous Russophobia coming from? Roads to the Olympic village are expensive! Big money calls all the shots, gets all the fat contracts! There’s corruption! Jesus, this is all **unprecedented** when it comes to the Olympics, oh yeah. Don’t you think all this might persuade Putin that perhaps there’s a double standard or two in play when it comes to Russia?

    Now, on the other hand, your summary of EU contributions to this whole sorry affair is, so far, the **only** description of Brussels’ cluelessness I’ve seen in **any** English-language account. (In fact, not since Iraq 2003 have I seen a more vivid demonstration of how utterly fucking terrible American media has become. It’s like they’ve taken spreading stupid as their grail, their mission and vision statements.) Anyway, Der Spiegel had a good account last week:


    Apparently Brussels has a functionary called the “Enlargement Commissioner”, and he views his job with all the single-mindedness of any Amway salesman aiming for a Diamond distributorship:

    “Some argued that Ukraine was too fragile to be forced to choose between Russia and the West. But that concern never reached the department in Brussels in charge of European enlargement and neighborhood policy, whose officials negotiated the treaty. No one even hit upon the idea that Moscow might assert its influence in Ukraine as aggressively as it did…

    ‘Looking back,’ says a senior official at the European Commission, ‘we could have sensed at that moment what was threatening to happen. But that would be against our nature. We EU representatives are always a little naïve and believe that our mission is bound to succeed, because we are fighting for the right values. We never plan for the worst case.’

    I think that quote has to be one for the history books. Who could possibly argue with ‘right values”, eh? I mean, Putin’s never expressed anything but absolute delight about the notion of a larger EU, right?

    Further, look, Yanukovych was a lousy guy, corrupt, and according to western media frenzies, he has bad taste in landscaping, too. But I can’t believe Yanykovych made a bad decision when he rejected the deal Brussels was serving up — the original catalyst for the Maidan crowds. No doubt relations with Putin were part of his calculus, but you wouldn’t need to be a vassal of Moscow to be extremely sceptical of what was on offer. I think he was speaking truthfully when he described that deal as extremely disadvantageous to **Ukrainians**. Look at the recipe the IMF is cooking up now for “aid”. Same old, same old austerity stew that’s worked so well, all over the world.

    And this is another area where I believe the EU has a helluva lot of culpability. Whatever brain-dead algorithm the “Enlargement Commissioner” might be following, the EU’s going to welcome Ukraine into the fold about as quickly as it will Turkey. I.e., never. Most Ukrainians aren’t going to be able to freely work and live in the EU in their lifetimes. So I believe that Brussels, with all its happy vague talk about Ukraine’s “European future”, has been stoking false hopes with empty, or at best loaded, promises. And the inevitable backlash will have to borne by whomever ends up in Kiev (or Lviv, if things unravel that much).

    So I think you’re right when you say, “The EU’s suitability or even competence as a geo-political actor must be in fundamental question.” But I’d go a lot further than you would: I think this episode shows that American membership in NATO needs to end. Let it become a strictly European organization, or let the EU form some replacement collective security arrangement. Maybe they’re up to it, maybe they’re not. It’s **their** problem. They’ve certainly got the economic and technological resources necessary. But — correct me if I’m wrong — America has been a prime advocate of a NATO expansion and highhandedness that I believe is the true core of Putin’s intransigence. And on the other side of the ledger, I can’t think of much benefit that NATO membership brings to Americans (as opposed to Beltway Caesars) since the Cold War ended. A few battalions of Dutch and Germans providing color for our strategy-free Afghan wallow. In return we get to dabble in the glorious Libyan crusade. Yippee.

    Which brings us to America. What you call “the ‘lead from behind’ problem” I would call the “head stuck so far up its provincial collective ass that it has no business presuming to ‘lead’ anything” syndrome. Weeks before Maidan ever came to a head, I was appalled at the parade of Congressional know-nothings jetting off to Kiev so they could preen. Then Obama decided to serve up his inane remarks about “costs”, because his earlier Syrian “red line” was such a fucking brilliant gambit that it deserved an encore, right? Then it emerged that a Victoria Nuland is not the third-tier visa reviewer that her talent merits, but actually holds a position of some responsibility crafting foreign policy in eastern Europe! I have heard Beltway “experts” yammer about What We Must Do in “the Ukraine”. I’ve heard the likely next president drag Hitler into the mix. I’ve heard Kerry talk about America’s devotion to the sanctity of borders and sovereignty! With a straight face! Christ, there’s Putin’s 80% favorability rating right there.

    So, sorry, I don’t think America should do anything other than shut up and stay the hell out. It’s the only advice to give to terminal incompetents whose motives are suspect.

    • DoctorLeoStrauss says

      Thanks for the considered and well reasoned reply. We agree on much. Here are some thoughts:

      1). Western Policy. We agree on the EU’s ill-considered post-2008 Ukraine outreach. A great link about the enlargement bureaucracy. U.S. policy to ‘backdoor’ Ukraine as mostly ‘passive’ observers also a mistake. If a more overt U.S. role would have provoked Moscow at the outset, it’s an important signal to re-examine overall policy more throughly.

      2). Russia’s aggression. Moscow has always defended its actions as ‘defensive’. True for Poland in 1939. Finland in 1940. Afghanistan 1979. The Kingdom of Rus became Russia through non-stop expansion deemed defensive. ‘Defensive’ often is for propaganda. Some reflects Russian passive aggressive cultural paranoia and penchant for perpetual victimhood. And some realpolitik.

      Putin’s Crimea venture is impulsive. The act of defying Western international norms on Russian terms, however, became inevitable between 2005-2012.

      We might scoff at CIA suborning Ukraine. Putin doesn’t. He blames the West for Moscow in 2011/2012, all the Arab Spring and Colored Revolutions. Putin justified aggression against a U.S. ambassador (McFaul) as ‘defensive’ against a shadowy conspiracy.

      The old saying happens to be true for him. For Russia to feel secure, everyone else must be made insecure.

      3). Sochi. Many nations seek Olympics as showcase and venue of state legitimacy. Pro-West governments no different (see, e.g., Tokyo 1964, etc.). Few have been so actively hostile while seeking the spotlight. Aside from a few modest, token paroles, Putin’s domestic campaign to stoke authoritarianism, nationalism, ethnic tensions, stifle dissent and foment unrestrained Anti-American (anti-Western) media before during and after the games unique.

      Putin’s blatant use of world attention as a theatrical prop to “bless” his regime and Russian extremism deserved media coverage. Spending a record amount for a Winter Games in a tropical city naturally a story. Barcelona went through cost criticism, as did Beijing, London, Athens, etc. And those were Summer Games.

      “Putin reveling in Sochi” is edited to clarify that Olympic distractions didn’t help his time for good decision-making.

      4). NATO. Putin’s attack achieved the impossible: a new Western consensus that NATO had an institutional raison d’etre after all. We were long time skeptics. And have no love for the EU (see earlier post on Ukraine from last fall). An EU without America via NATO is essentially inviting further Russian aggression. From the 1970s and 1980s we wished the Europeans would do more for their own defense.

      NATO’s rationale now in 2014 is as in 1949: keep the Russians out. We get the benefit of denying the European industrial and economic cockpit to Russia.

      5). Ukraine. Agree with you that Kiev has made progress after 2001. It became a failed state for purposes here when its governing institutions could no longer function. Her sovereign debt obligations and internal budget wholly dependent on direct foreign subsidy. Economic reforms (not even the IMF austerity demands) politically became impossible. If Yanukovich pulled Ukraine away from the 2004 Constitution and towards a Putinesque presidential system (ala Moscow 1993), like most things he bungled it.

      6.). America’s role. We disagree on American disengagement. More than ever a consistent U.S. role is vital to prevent further miscalculations. Clarity to Moscow is essential for stabilization. And allows regional and other nations to orient their policies predictably.

      • sglover says

        And thanks for your considered and well reasoned response. As I write this, the BBC is saying that a NATO general is saying that Russian manuevers involving 20,000 troops threaten — Moldova!!! We all remember how the Red Army cleared Ukraine with two regiments and a medical company in Operation Bagration…



        We probably do agree on a lot, but we part company when it comes to your protrayal of Russian “aggression”. **Of course** Russia has, over the years, absorbed neighboring lands and rationalized it as “defense”. Name a state that **hasn’t** done that, that’s large enough to have a self-proclaimed “sphere of interest”. Do I really need to belabor the point that in my lifetime, NO state has intervened militarily more often, or had a more expansive definition of its sphere of interest, than the U.S.?!?

        This isn’t simply an accusation of hypocrisy (though god knows there’s been more than enough of that gushing out of the Beltway). Putin is acting on a calculus that WE have relied on time and time again — yet our “leaders” are completely flummoxed, blindsided, by his behavior. Western governments, led by Washington, seem to be completely obtuse, completely lacking in the most elementary empathy and self-awareness. To the best of my knowledge the Russians have been very candid about their disapproval of American/NATO influence on their western edge. From Kosovo to the accession of new NATO members to idiotic ABM deployments, the Russians have been pretty clear about their feelings. Also, in many matters that Washington, at least, considers important, Moscow has often been rather helpful. Do our “strategists” somehow forget the phrase “quid pro quo”? (Did Obama, with his nitwit warning about “costs”, ever gave a thought to those supply lines running to Afghanistan — through Russia?) Sure, we might question Russian attitudes, we might consider them unduly paranoid. But they exist! And not without reason!

        And yet the EU’s “Expansion Minister” ran his robotic games IN UKRAINE. That over-promoted neocon hack Nuland apparently got free reign to run her meddling games IN UKRAINE. I don’t think it’s crazy at all that Russians might feel beleagured, ignored, scorned, forced to draw a line. Under the circumstances, does the term “aggression” really apply? Is the phrase “don’t stick your dick in a hornet’s nest” too crude for the geniuses in the foreign policy world?

        Beyond Ukraine, Putin’s or Russia’s ostensible aggressiveness seems even more unlikely to me. Rolling into the Baltics, say, and holding the territory, seems far beyond their military capabilities. And the costs of every kind would be so enormous that the whole show would be self-defeating from the start. I mean, NATO aside, China’s changed a bit since 1940, yes? As it is, even little Crimea, filled with friendlies, might turn out to be a substantial drain on Russian resources.

        It will be interesting to see what happens in Donetsk and Kharkov. (Hysteria about how Putin “wants” Kiev or all of Ukraine is just silly.) I wouldn’t be surprised if Putin’s sent some rabble rousers across the border to stir things up, but there’s also a lot of genuine indigenous anxiety about the new gang in Kiev. (And those anxieties aren’t entirely paranoia — there are some **very** slimy characters in the provisional government and Rada. Their numbers aren’t trivial, either.) Anyway, this might provide a test of whether your definition of Russian aggressiveness holds or not. My hunch is that Putin will forgo the opportunity to absorb those regions, should it arise. They’ll be more beneficial to him **in** Ukraine, influencing events in Kiev. Hopefully the opportunity will never arise.

        Finally, America, again. I’ll grant your argument that the American involvement could be valuable because it might prevent things from unravelling, 1914 redux, simply because of its outsized presence. But it seems to me that your central qualifier — “a consistent U.S. role” — trips you up. In these matters, I simply don’t believe that competence resides in American public institutions any more. Russia’s not the only country with a big parasitic oligarchy, eh?

        On that note — unrelated otherwise — an interview of the TWO physicists currently serving in Congress (not quite right, since one of them is unfortunately moving on to better things):


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