Don't Poke the Russian Bear

Putin is a bully but he’s not insane, and escalating a conflict with Moscow can only make things worse.

American policymakers don't get it; the politicians don't get it; Fox News certainly doesn't get it; the advocates for various flavors and colors of democracy don't get it. And in not getting it, they are pushing the United States down the road to confrontation with Russia. 

It's not about democracy. It's not about annexation. It's not about aggression or a new Munich. It's not about a return to the Cold War. It's about centuries-old Russian paranoia about the states on its borders and what Moscow think the Europeans, the Chinese, or the Americans are up to in its near abroad.

The Ukraine crisis, at its heart, is about the realities of the interstate system, which has only been around for more than 400 years, particularly in the Eurasian region. But a lot of people seem to have an emotional investment in a different answer than reality. 

The neo-con buccaneers are invested in making Vladimir Putin's aggression in Crimea part of a meta-critique of Barack Obama's foreign policy. Take Stephen Blank of the American Foreign Policy Council, asserting on the basis of no evidence at all that "clearly, Russia has acted because its leaders believe that the Obama administration and Western allies are irresolute, weak and need Russia more than it needs them."   

Then there's Sen. John McCain, who never misses an opportunity to slam the president, or to recommend bluster in foreign policy, saying -- in the same breath -- that Putin is to blame for Crimea but that Obama's foreign policy is really to blame because it "has fed a perception that the United States is weak, and to people like Mr. Putin, weakness is provocative." 

Or Sen. James Inhofe, the ranking minority member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, who's boldly proposed that the United States send F-22 fighter jets to Poland and Aegis missile interceptor-laden ships to the Baltic to show toughness.

Even Condoleezza Rice, who surely knows better as a Russia scholar, argues that events like Putin's invasion of Crimea "have come due to signals that we are exhausted and disinterested." 

Come on, folks. Rice, Inhofe, McCain are some of the people who brought us that notoriously successful U.S. military intervention in Iraq. How's that democracy and regional stability thing working out for ya? There's not a lot of street cred here about how to handle international tensions.

The hard, international reality here is that Russia cares, a lot, about what happens on its periphery. There's no mystery here; the precedent goes back hundreds of years. And it is not a pretty form of caring, and never has been. From the days of the czars, this has involved invasions, occupations, absorptions, corruption, and power plays -- all the nice, little things great powers like to do on their peripheries. 

Moscow isn't trying to start a new Cold War, either. They're making sure the states right around them are friendly, whatever their form of government. So it serves little purpose talking about the Sudetenland or standing up to Hitler. Putin is a bully, but he is not an insane, genocidal dictator engaged in an ideological search for "lebensraum." Plus, I get very little sense here of "today Kiev; tomorrow Budapest" emanating from Moscow, but a lot of paranoia about U.S. involvement in the coup d'état in Ukraine and fears of NATO expansion. Of course, an opportunistic grab for a piece of land that used to be part of Russia is a bold move, but it's not tanks streaming across the Fulda Gap.

It's also not about the West (that archaic term the media still likes to use, though the reality of "a West" disappeared in 1989, if not before) coming to the support of a helpless little democracy. Ukraine is not a shiny, emerging democracy -- it is a badly-divided, poorly-run country. Its economy has been limping or failing for years and corruption is rampant, even among the supporters of someone like Yulia Tymoshenko, whom Inhofe has been gussying up for several years as a heroine of democracy. 

It's not about NATO, either. Ukraine is not a NATO ally for the very good reason that even supporters of expanding NATO recognize -- it is right next door to Russia with a substantial Russian population, many of whom feel a closer connection to the old motherland than to Ukraine's teetering government. John Mearsheimer is right: Ukraine is a buffer state between Russia and Europe. About the most provocative thing to do today would be to rush a big supply of arms to Kiev, with trainers and consultants, preparing for war with Russia.

The reality here is that this is a tough assertion by Putin of what Russia will not accept with respect to U.S. and European influence in a strategic partner country. Call it paranoid, aggressive, nasty -- call it what you like, but there it is. 

If you want a touchstone for how events in Ukraine and a muscular response might be seen, go back roughly 190 years in American history, when a president laid down a doctrine that warned Europeans not to try to create new colonies in the Western Hemisphere. The United States enforced the Monroe Doctrine and policed its neighborhood with a war on Mexico, pressures on Canada, interventions in Cuba, the taking of Puerto Rico, and subsequent endless interventions in Haiti, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Chile, tiny Grenada, and the list goes on. If the idea of Russians sending military assistance to Cuba makes your blood boil, you get the idea.

This historical recital has nothing to do with that old red herring about "moral equivalency." That metaphor should have been trashed with the end of the Cold War. It has to do with security and the assertion by a large power of what it sees as its regional rights. Actions will be taken when threats and risks are detected. And they will not be taken with kindness and love; generally, they happen through covert or overt uses of military force. 

Realistically, there is very little the United States, or its European allies, can do about Crimean independence now, or Russia's power play. I would love to see Putin gone and a true legislature in Moscow, instead of the puppet one there today. I would love to see Russian crowds resisting their leaders' military aggression -- and prevailing. And I am surely not alone in saying that I would love to see that strand of Russian history that embraces Europe reassert itself, leading to greater cooperation and integration across Eurasia as a broader zone of peace and economic harmony. But it ain't gonna happen tomorrow.

Those who would rush America into a military confrontation with Moscow over Crimea have to explain why they think Putin would back down, especially if we escalated this conflict. Sanctions and diplomacy are the right response, and don't hold out for a sudden withdrawal of Russian forces or the outbreak of accountable democracy in Kiev. Sometimes we have to live with the world as it is, not the way we want it to be, even if it is ugly.



The Guns of August in the East China Sea

Dark echoes of world war lurk in Asia's dangerous, contested waters.

The parallels of history have obsessed the foreign policy elite for years, and are building towards a fever pitch: Is the Asia of 2014 the new Europe of 1914? China is a rising and assertive new power much like Kaiser Wilhelm II's Germany. An explosion of nationalism has taken hold among dynamic ethnic nations, from Beijing to Tokyo, Hanoi to Manila. And as Asia's middle-classes enjoy a new and ascendant place in the world, sustained capitalist prosperity has led to military acquisitions. An arms race in Asia is on the loose -- as the Australian analyst Desmond Ball reports, progressing to a dangerous phase of actions and reactions, as opposed to a normal, non-threatening build-up. If World War I was "the first middle-class war in history," as the Canadian historian Modris Eksteins writes, with literate masses bursting with patriotic pride, no wonder so many see the dark echoes in the Pacific becoming an armed camp. 

Historical analogy is useful for rough orientation. But it is dangerous when taken too far; each situation is its own thing, thoroughly unique. Indeed, great statesmen are those who exploit unique opportunities, even as they are aware of vague parallels to the past. The Pacific Basin now offers a signal illustration of vague parallels and yet telling differences to Europe on the eve of World War I.

Miscalculations in the balance of power were a factor in the outbreak of World War I, and with the rise of Chinese military power -- Beijing recently announced a 12.2 percent increase in its military spending, bringing its total annual budget to roughly 25 percent that of the United States -- the Pacific is no longer an uncomplicated U.S. naval lake. A more complex balance of power between the United States, China, Japan, and others is replacing unipolarity. Such an arrangement, because it promises more interactions, makes miscalculations easier. While the Obama administration's 2011 Asia pivot was intended to indicate a shift in emphasis from the Middle East to Asia -- and guarantee that the United States would remain globally engaged despite difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan -- it was also an admission of geopolitical anxiety: that the stability of the Pacific could no longer be taken for granted. 

As naval warfare goes undersea -- because surface warships are increasingly vulnerable to missiles -- "submarines are the new bling, everybody wants them," says Bernard Loo Fook Weng, a Singaporean military strategist. Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, Vietnam, South Korea, and Japan have all been adding to their undersea arsenals, and China is expected to have a fleet of around 75 subs in the coming decade or so, eventually surpassing the United States. Just as modernism -- with its industrial militaries -- allowed for the grim, interminable nightmare of World War I, there is the fear that the Pacific will show us the demonic lightning flashes of postmodernism, with nuclear-powered submarines, fifth-generation fighter jets, ballistic missiles, and cyberwarfare.

Though the islands in dispute in the East and South China seas are in many cases barren and below water during high tide, as Aristotle wrote, conflicts arise "not over small things but from small things." The assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand that sparked World War I was one such small thing. Claims in the Pacific, however petty, if they are tied to vital interests, can lead to war. Indeed, the primordial quest for status still tragically determines the international system -- just as it did prior to World War I. And these islets have become, because of their very barren abstraction, logos of nationhood in a global media age. 

Remember that the Pacific is the geographic organizing principle of world economic order to no less an extent than Europe was in 1914. The South China Sea functions as the throat of the Western Pacific and Indian oceans, where the most crowded global sea routes coalesce -- the Mitteleuropa of the 21st century. The oil transported here from the Middle East en route to Asian megacities is triple the amount that passes through the Suez Canal and 15 times the amount that transits the Panama Canal.  

But before one buys the 1914 analogy, there are other matters to consider. While 1914 Europe was a landscape, with large armies facing one another inside a claustrophobic terrain with few natural barriers, East Asia is a seascape, with vast maritime distances separating national capitals. The sea impedes aggression to a degree that land does not. Naval forces can cross water and storm beachheads, though with great difficulty, but moving inland and occupying hostile populations is nearly impossible. The Taiwan Strait is roughly four times the width of the English Channel, a geography that continues to help preserve Taiwan's de facto independence from China.

Even the fastest warships travel slowly, giving diplomats time to do their work. Incidents in the air are more likely, although Asian countries have erected strict protocols and prefer to posture verbally so as to avoid actual combat. (That said, the new Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone is a particularly provocative protocol.) Since any such incidents would likely occur over open water there will be few casualties, reducing the prospect that a single incident will lead to war. And because of the speed, accuracy, and destructiveness of postmodern weaponry, any war that does break out will probably be short -- albeit with serious economic consequences. Something equivalent to four years of trench warfare is almost impossible to imagine. And remember that it was World War I's very grinding length that made it a history-transforming and culture-transforming event: it caused 17 million military and civilian casualties; the disputes in the Pacific Basin are certainly not going to lead to that.

World War I also featured different and unwieldy alliance systems. Asia is simpler: almost everyone fears China and depends -- militarily at least -- on the United States. This is not the Cold War where few Americans could be found in the East Bloc, a region with which we did almost no trade. Millions of Americans and Chinese have visited each other's countries, tens of thousands of American businessmen have passed through Chinese cities, and Chinese party elites send their children to U.S. universities. U.S. officials know they must steer between the two extremes of allowing China's Finlandization of its Asian neighbors and allowing nationalistic governments in Vietnam, the Philippines, and Japan to lure the United States into a conflict with China.

Nationalistic as these democracies may be, the best way to curb their excesses and make them less nervous is to give them the assurance of a U.S. security umbrella, born of credible air and sea power. A strong U.S.-China relationship can keep the peace in Asia. (South Korea also fears Japan, but the United States is successfully managing that tension.) Unlike empires mired in decrepitude that characterized 1914 Europe, East Asia features robust democracies in South Korea and Japan, and strengthening democracies in Malaysia and the Philippines. An informal alliance of democracies -- that should also include a reformist, de facto ally like Vietnam -- is the best and most stable counter to Chinese militarism. Some of these democracies are fraught, and fascist-cum-communist North Korea could implode, but this is not a world coming apart. Limited eruptions do not equal a global cataclysm.

Yet the most profound difference between August 1914 and now is historical self-awareness. As Modris Eksteins meticulously documents in his 1989 book Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, European capitals greeted the war with outbursts of euphoria and a feeling of liberation. Because 19th century Europe had been relatively peaceful since the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, people had lost the sense of the tragic that enables them to avoid tragedy in the first place. Aging, one-child societies like those of China, Japan, and South Korea, with memories of war, revolution, and famine, are less likely to greet violent struggle with joy and equanimity. And the United States, the paramount military player in Asia, by its very conscious fear of a World War I scenario, will take every measure to avoid it.

A profusion of warships in the Pacific certainly suggests a more anxious, complicated world. But U.S. generals and diplomats need not give in to fate, especially given the differences with a century ago. The United States entered World War I too late. Projecting a strong military footprint in Asia while ceaselessly engaging the Chinese is the way that conflict can be avoided this time around.