Democracy Lab

Sorry, Putin Isn't Crazy

Why Russians have good reason to suspect the West's motives in Ukraine.

While discussing the Russian invasion of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula on CBS's Face The Nation recently, Secretary of State John Kerry remarked: "You just don't in the 21st century behave in 19th-century fashion by invading another country on [a] completely trumped-up pretext." He also warned that President Obama "has all options on the table" -- including the use of military force, though he said that option would "not serve the world well." In speaking with Obama last weekend, German chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly opined that the Russian head of state may have lost "touch with reality" and appeared to be "living in another world." Obama himself has accused Putin of viewing the Ukraine crisis as part of a "some Cold War chessboard," and of "keeping one foot in the old [Cold War] ways of doing business."

Criticisms of Russia's military action have been coming from all quarters. Nonetheless, these comments by western leaders merit special examination. They seem to be based on a shared conclusion:  In taking over the Crimea, President Putin has behaved irrationally, operating on a set of erroneous, perhaps even crazed, assumptions. Chief among these is the notion that the West, and the United States in particular, backed the "Euromaidan" street protests that recently overthrew Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Farfetched as it may seem to Western leaders, a recent Levada Center opinion poll shows that a plurality -- 43 percent -- of Putin's compatriots agree with him.

It should surprise no one that Putin has concluded that the United States was behind the Euromaidan protests. He famously blamed the 2011 eruption of opposition demonstrations in Russia on meddling American NGOs. Moreover, in February, Victoria Nuland, a State Department official, declared that since Ukraine achieved independence in 1991, the U.S. government has spent more than $5 billion to "assist" it in building "democratic skills," "civic participation," and "good governance." Aid has been provided, as far as is known, under the Freedom Support Act passed in 1992 to help stimulate former Soviet economies using American funds. But to Russians, Nuland's words have been interpreted to mean that the United States fomented the Euromaidan, paid its participants, and instructed them in the use of weapons. "Western instructors" Putin said last week in a press conference, did their best to train the Euromaidan's "armed brigades."

In suspecting the United States' involvement in the Euromaidan, has Putin taken leave of his senses? Kerry and Merkel seem to have forgotten, or chosen to ignore, the numerous aggressive steps the United States has taken since the end of the Cold War to reduce Russia's influence, to say nothing of American-backed military interventions and invasions across the globe. As the nuclear standoff between the two superpowers waned, the West's most powerful military alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), has expanded three times, despite President George H. W. Bush's apparent promise to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev not to enlarge the group. NATO inducted the Baltic states in 2004, and laid the groundwork for the membership of Ukraine and Georgia. Yanukovych scuppered such plans relating to Ukraine in 2010, but deputies of the new Ukrainian parliament have just introduced a bill proposing the country again seek membership.

The Soviet Union is no more, but the entity created specifically to counter its military might thrives, as has the Pentagon's budget, which increased relentlessly until 2011, topping $700 billion. Furthermore, in 2002, the United States withdrew unilaterally from its treaty with Moscow banning anti-ballistic missiles and plans to station such missiles in Eastern Europe. The conclusion Putin has drawn? The United States is bent on maintaining and increasing its hegemony -- at Russia's expense.

Are invasions a "19th-century" means of dealing with unpalatable regimes? A survey of post-Cold War history gives reason to think otherwise. In 1994 the U.S. military embargoed Haiti and sent troops in to reinstate ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. That same year, President Clinton began deploying the military (under NATO's aegis) in the Balkans in operations that culminated in 1999 with a 78-day bombing campaign against Serbia that led to the secession of Kosovo and, eventually, to the imprisonment and extradition (to The Hague) of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. In 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan, drove the Taliban from power, and oversaw the election of President Hamid Karzai. Two years later, the George W. Bush administration orchestrated a "Coalition of the Willing" to invade Iraq and depose President Saddam Hussein, whom it eventually handed over to the Iraqi government for trial and execution. The Iraq War's casus belli -- weapons of mass destruction -- was never found. (If there ever was a "trumped-up pretext," that was it.) In 2011, under the guise of enforcing a no-fly zone in Libya, the United States provided critical military support to Western coalition forces in Operation Odyssey Dawn, which ended with the overthrow, hunting down, and brutal extrajudicial execution of Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi.

Far from being "19th-century" behavior, bombing, invading, and toppling regimes remain options the United States has been willing to deploy against its adversaries. Qaddafi's execution in particular is known to have disturbed Putin. In 2011, Putin repeatedly and angrily denounced NATO for using the no-fly zone it imposed on Libya as a pretext for allowing Qaddafi's killing. A similar fate may have awaited Yanukovych had he not managed to flee to Russia. Swift Western recognition of Ukraine's new interim government, which came to power via mass demonstrations after Yanukovych had ceded to opposition demands for new parliamentary and presidential elections (in which he surely faced defeat), can only have reinforced Putin's conviction that not only was the United States working to undermine his allies, it even sanctions regime change that might threaten his own physical survival.

The West, and especially the United States, needs to acknowledge that the invasions and changes of regime they have carried out have done nothing to dispel notions that they seek world hegemony, and have convinced Putin that he is locked in a struggle not only for Russian dominance in its near-abroad, but for the future of his government -- and even, possibly, for his life. They have targeted authoritarian rulers in the past, and suspecting them of doing so now makes eminent sense; Putin is taking history's lesson to heart. This is no mere call for a reexamination of the U.S. history of robust interventions across the globe, interventions of which the Russian leader is no doubt a student. President Obama and his hectoring Secretary of State should take as a given the rank cynicism these interventions have long generated outside America's borders and formulate their addresses -- and policies -- to take it into account.

It would also behoove Obama in particular to come clean to the American people and fess up to what has become painfully obvious during his two terms: there are problems abroad, bloody and tragic as they may be, that the United States simply cannot solve through military intervention or otherwise. It has little leverage to counter Russian influence in Ukraine or dislodge Russian forces from the Crimea. The Cold War is over, to be sure, but the "chessboard" on which Russia and the United States play is much reduced -- reduced, in fact, to Russia's back yard. Putin can be expected to care what happens there and work hard to steer events in his country's favor. And Putin is not the only one to see responses to crises as plays on a "chessboard." If Obama owns up to this, he might well end up averting a potentially catastrophic challenge match.

WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

You Can't Go Home Again

Is the Japanese government finally giving up on resettling Fukushima’s radioactive ghost town?

Before former residents can enter the radioactive ghost town of Okuma, just a few miles from the ruins of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, they must first get a permit from Japanese bureaucrats, who then advise them on protective measures. They'll need to suit up before they go in: Disposable paper coveralls, booties, gloves, caps, and facemasks will keep them safe enough for an hour's visit. The officials suggest they bring a dosimeter so they'll know exactly what radiation dose they're receiving as they walk through the desolate streets to their empty houses, and can avoid lingering in the most dangerous places.

Yet until recently, the Japanese government has maintained the politically expedient fiction that this town would soon be fit for habitation once more.

The residents of Okuma are among the roughly 100,000 nuclear refugees who are still barred from their homes. March 11 marks the third anniversary of Japan's triple catastrophe: the earthquake, tsunami, and onset of the nuclear crisis at Fukushima Daiichi, which led to partial meltdowns in three reactors. The explosions that shattered the plant's reactor buildings released a plume of radioactive material that drifted over northeast Japan, causing more than 150,000 people to flee their homes. Fallout settled on rooftops and lawns and driveways, on rice paddies and orchards, on roads and forests. The evacuated towns are still laced with the radioactive isotope Cesium-137, which has a half-life of 30 years.

In the years since the accident, the Japanese government first set out to map the region's radioactive hotspots, and then began a massive decontamination effort. A total of 100 municipalities were marked for cleanup, with 11 of those designated areas of special concern. Gradually, towns that weren't too contaminated -- those on the periphery of the evacuation zone -- are being reopened for inhabitants. Right now, residents of the town of Tamura are anxiously awaiting the April 1 lifting of the evacuation order for their area, although many say they're still worried about health consequences of moving back.

The government had stated that this strategy of cleanup and resettlement would continue apace, and would eventually reach Okuma and the other highly contaminated towns. Perhaps in a few years, officials had suggested, Okuma's displaced residents would be able to safely resume their lives.

But the facts are clear: Some evacuated towns will be poisoned for decades to come, and their residents can't go home again. It's a tragedy, of that there's no question. But perhaps the greater injustice is that these refugees were kept living in limbo for three years, denied the truth by a government that didn't have the political bravery to speak it.

Okuma, a prosperous coastal burg of about 11,000 farmers, fishers, and nuclear workers, was one of the first towns evacuated during the Fukushima crisis. Around dawn on the morning of March 12, 2011, Okuma Mayor Toshitsuna Watanabe received the order to get his citizens out. He kept watch as fire trucks crawled through the streets and blared instructions, then shepherded his people onto buses that would take them over a ridge of mountains to a town about 30 miles away, where they'd take shelter in a gymnasium.

Mayor Watanabe is the 19th generation of his family to live in Okuma. He watched the Fukushima Daiichi plant's construction in the late 1960s, and was very comfortable dwelling in its shadow. Even on the day of the evacuation, as he followed the departing buses in his car, he didn't think it was possible that there could be a severe accident at the power station; he believed there were so many layers of defense and protection in place that any problem would be swiftly contained. He expected to be away for a few days at most.

Now Watanabe governs from a town-hall-in-exile in the city of Aizuwakamatsu, about 70 miles away from Okuma. He and his staff have offices in an old school building, where strings of origami cranes, sent by sympathetic well-wishers, decorate the halls. The mayor says his priority is to rebuild his town, and "to make Okuma like it was before." But he says support for his position is waning. Initially, he said, most of Okuma's scattered citizens were eager to return to their town. His people were rooted in history, and couldn't imagine moving away from their family tombs, which they sweep clean each year. But in Watanabe's most recent survey, only 11 percent of his constituents still hoped for a homecoming. They've dispersed to the various cities of Fukushima Prefecture, and their community spirit is dissipating. 

The science is also against him. According to Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority, towns can be reinhabited if residents would be exposed to less than 20 millisieverts of radiation per year, a typical safety threshold for nuclear workers. The government has also said that its long-term goal is to reduce radiation doses in the evacuation zone to 1 millisievert per year, though even the IAEA has gently suggested that such a target is unrealistic. (For comparison's sake, a medical CT scan usually has a dose of 1 to 10 millisieverts.)

According to Watanabe, the current measurements show that anyone who went back to live in Okuma would have a dose of over 50 millisieverts per year. So the government, eager to make its case that the problem could be fixed, performed a decontamination pilot study at residential neighborhoods, forest areas, and farms. The efforts were largely unsuccessful. Workers found it impossible to purify every nook and cranny of the houses, and bushwhacking through the woodlands to remove loam and underbrush proved to be a frankly ridiculous undertaking. Only in the farms did the workers have success: By removing about 4 inches of topsoil from the fields, bagging up the soil, and carting it all away, they were able to reduce the dose rate in those fields to 1 millisievert per year. But Watanabe says it isn't practical to remove the top 4 inches of the entire municipality of Okuma. 

For three years, many of Watanabe's citizens have lived in temporary quarters in the cities where they've taken refuge, and have received monthly payments from TEPCO to keep them going during their adversity. In late December, however, the government instructed TEPCO to change its compensation policy. Now each evacuee who won't be able to return home during his or her lifetime is entitled to $66,000 in compensation for the loss, as well as additional money to help purchase a new home elsewhere. The government hasn't made any official announcement that it's writing off a portion of Japan, but it is quietly acknowledging that it can't clean up Okuma and the other terribly tainted towns during the displaced residents' lifetimes. It's time for them to start over. 

When Okuma's former residents get past the guards at the roadblock on the road into their hometown, they enter a beautiful post-apocalyptic landscape. Lush green weeds grow up in their abandoned rice paddies, and flowering vines twine up the sides of their earthquake-damaged houses. They can't see the poison all around them, but the numbers on their dosimeters tell the tale. They pull their masks a little tighter over their faces. They remember that when the bureaucrats gave their advice on how to stay safe during a one-hour visit to Okuma, they said to watch out for wild boars. Three years after the people left, the wildlife is moving in.

YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images