Understanding the Crimea Crisis

As I write, the Ukrainian region of Crimea is being absorbed by Russia, more or less openly. This represents a blatant challenge to the post-1991 European order, make no mistake, and so far Vladimir Putin is winning. After a sudden increase in Russian military personnel on the sensitive peninsula, more than 6,000 troops, mostly Special Operations Forces (SOF), Moscow has pulled out all the stops in waging what I have termed Special War: provocations, espionage, black and white propaganda, and the use of deniable SOF, often under false flag. None of this is new to the Russians, indeed it’s second-nature to the Kremlin, and Crimea today can best be viewed as one huge operation by Moscow’s powerful military intelligence, the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), which controls not just defense espionage matters but SOF too, what the Russians term SPETSNAZ.

The outcome in Crimea is no longer in doubt. The referendum on its status, whose vote tally is preordained, is scheduled for March 16; that President Obama and many Western leaders have noted this is illegal is all the more reason Moscow will do it. Western powers are spending much time and effort trying to undo the fait accompli in Crimea, to no effect now save posturing. What needs to be done is deterring the Kremlin’s next move, which is sure to come.

It is widely assumed that Putin’s next aggression will arrive in Eastern Ukraine, where there are large pockets of ethnic Russians, and where Moscow’s intelligence services have been playing their customary provocative games, laying the groundwork for full-scale Special War. Regrettably, I suspect the chances of a more-or-less overt Russian military move into Eastern Ukraine, to “protect” ethnic kin from “fascists,” are rising as Putin smells Western dithering in the face of his Crimean coup. Such an act will mean a full-scale war for Ukraine, which will soon involve NATO indirectly at least. Putin has the ability to seize much of Eastern Ukraine without much chance of defeat, but he may win himself a protracted conflict for which Russia is unready.

That said, there is no room for confident pleasantries yet of the sort we are seeing in the Western media: that the Kremlin is really losing, that Russia is on the ropes, that Putin is sowing the seeds of his eventual defeat. There is no doubt that Putin is lashing out in part due to Russia’s many weaknesses: economic, social, demographic, and political. Putin’s nostalgia for the Soviet Union – really, a deep longing for again having unquestioned Great Power status – is well known, but it needs to be recognized that over Crimea and Ukraine, Putin is acting simply in the manner of traditional Russian leaders: touchy about borders, at turns nakedly aggressive, desiring to have weak neighbors it can manipulate, worried about defending his land and people against myriad aggressors (some of them quite imaginary). Russia’s neighbors all know this pattern of conduct well, and are planning accordingly. Poland announced major defense reforms emphasizing territorial defense (i.e. defense against resurgent Russia) last fall, and now Sweden is following suit: there will be others.

To the surprise of no one actually acquainted with post-Cold War Europe, the collective response of European powers to the Crimean crisis has been underwhelming, to be kind. There has been no united front against Kremlin aggression as there is no common vision of what needs defending among members of the European Union (EU). While Eastern members properly feel an urgency about Russian moves, members further West seem less inclined to inconvenience themselves and their comfortable lives. The response in Germany, the most powerful EU country economically and politically, has been particularly repulsive where, thanks to underfunding and a lack of seriousness about defense matters, the Bundeswehr is incapable of offering much in terms of deterrence anyway, and the Kremlin’s buying off of much of Germany’s political elite has done the rest. Given German misdeeds in Poland and other Eastern European countries between 1939 and 1945, that are now threatened by Moscow, Berlin’s lackadaiscal response reveals moral, not just political, failings.

As the EU has been revealed to be a dilettante’s talk-shop outside economics, better suited to debates about cheese regulations than serious matters of statecraft, the burden must fall on NATO which, thanks to gross underinvestment in defense by nearly all European members, means that falls on the United States. There is no doubt that, in extremis, the United States would honor its Article 5 obligations and go to war to defend any NATO country directly threatened by Russian invasion. But what of countries threatened more indirectly by Special War à la russe – by subversion, terrorism, and violence by “self-defense militias” that the Kremlin swears it has nothing to do with? And what happens in a few years when the American military, already tired by a dozen years of failed wars  in the Middle East and increasingly hollowed out by massive defense spending cuts, lacks sufficient power to deter Russia quickly and convincingly? These are the stuff of Eastern European NATO nightmares, and properly so.

Perhaps most unsettling is the manner in which Western observers fail to note what actually motivates Putin and his country. Let there be no mistake, Moscow’s nakedly nationalist chest-beating is widely popular among average Russians; its opponents represent a distinctly minority view that natives will cheerfully explain is foreign-controlled anyway. We hear much happy-talk about the “irrationality” of Kremlin conduct, that such aggression has no place in our current, advanced age, and that it all makes no economic sense anyway. Historians are aware that remarkably similar language was employed by Western pundits and statesmen in the late 1930s to explain away the increasingly aggressive behavior, including cheerful disregard for international norms, by another leader of a resurgent yet recently defeated power.

Russia was indeed a defeated power after 1991, and it nurses a deep sense of humiliation at the hands of the West and especially the United States. I have more than a little sympathy for this viewpoint, and there can no doubt that, in the 1990s, Washington, DC, paid far too little attention to Moscow’s views on much of anything, and we are now paying the price for that, repaid with onerous interest to the Kremlin. U.S. and NATO actions in the Balkans, at the expense of Russia’s troublesome old friend Serbia, have come back to haunt, and Moscow’s representatives now cannot contain their glee  pointing out that, if NATO could unilaterally redraw the internationally recognized borders of Serbia in 1999, why cannot Russia to the same to Ukraine now? If the brief Georgia war of 2008 was payback for Kosovo – and it certainly was – what is playing out now over Ukraine is merely the next stage of Moscow’s revenge, for much higher stakes.

Revenge is a category not much discussed in college International Relations classes, but it is a prime motivator for Putin and his country now. Humiliating the United States and NATO is a major strategic aim for the Kremlin, and from their viewpoint an entirely rational – not to mention entirely delicious – one. While the Kremlin will not risk a major war with the West, which they know would be a disaster of vast proportions, they are quite happy to come close enough to show NATO and America to be the decadent weaklings that Putin and millions of Russians are quite confident that we are. To state the obvious, the risk of serious miscalculation, another historic Russian speciality in foreign affairs, is grave now.

But do not expect the Kremlin to back off yet, Putin and his retinue are enjoying this too much to stop now. Moscow has wanted to redraw the internal borders of the USSR, which do not reflect ethnic realities well, ever since 1991, and in this revanchist game Ukraine is the biggest prize of all. Simply put, Barack Obama is the first American president Moscow has felt they could pull this off against. This is painful to say, not least because this author – like many foreign policy watchers – was optimistic at the start that President Obama could undo the massive harm done to America’s international reputation by George W. Bush. Yet Moscow has taken a different view of all this from the outset, seeing weakness where others saw lawyerly consideration and American-style optimism.

This has been plain to see for some time. While Western Europe was celebrating Obama as something vaguely divine – his pre-victory speech at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate and the award of the Nobel Peace Prize for having done nothing save not being President Bush, are fated to go down as two of the strangest happenings in modern foreign affairs – Russia was much less impressed. When Obama was first elected, Moscow pundits, including respected, level-headed ones, spoke as if America had lost its collective mind. Putin’s contempt for Obama has never been well disguised, and has only become more obvious with time, and many average Russians feel the same. Russian, like many Slavic languages, revels in countless put-downs implying weakness and effeminacy, and if you spend any time among Russians, even highly educated ones, you will hear the full range of them of them used to describe President Obama – lately, often with a laugh.

This was probably inevitable: how else did anyone expect the “former” KGB officer and judo master to look at the law professor and community organizer? Yet policies matter more, and over the last five years, Obama’s policies have gradually opened the door to a stronger, more assertive Russia in the world, above all the disaster over Syria which, as my colleague Tom Nichols and I noted several times last yearrepresented an opening beyond the Middle East that Putin was sure to take advantage of, and so he has.

All is far from lost. In his last year in office, President Jimmy Carter, shaken by Kremlin aggression, above all in Afghanistan, woke up to reality and took decisive action, raising defense spending and getting tough with the USSR in something like Special War, thereby setting the stage for victory in the Cold War a decade later, something which too few pundits have been willing to credit President Carter. Something similar can be done now, and ought to be. Deterrence, particularly in the realm of Special War, is the language that Putin speaks and understands well. This, plus bolstering NATO’s conventional defenses in the East, is entirely within our power and needs to be done urgently to forestall more Russian bad behavior.

Yet there are reasons to doubt this will happen soon enough, not least due to the basic dysfunction of this White House in foreign policy. This is not news, yet matters greatly now. Simply put, President Obama has surrounded himself with people who are not up to the challenge presented by the Kremlin over Ukraine and beyond. I’ve named some of them before, and don’t need to do so again. Most seriously, the consolidation of foreign policy decision-making in a few hands in this White House is without modern precedent and cancerous. It’s hardly a secret inside the Beltway that both the Departments of State and Defense, the former not exactly being a right-wing bastion, have been marginalized under Obama to a dangerous extent. In the recent scandal of Obama appointing campaign donors to ambassadorships when they seemed not to even know where the country in question was, I could not help but note that this really makes no difference, since all important foreign policy decisions are being made by a few, often young, staffers in the White House, outside the normal State Department chain.

A related factor here surely is that the United States has groomed a whole generation of foreign policy wonks-in-training who lack any real understanding of how the world actually works. These impressive-on-paper people – let it be noted they are legion in both parties – the under-45′s who are always graduates of the right schools and first-rate players of The Game in Washington, DC (which really comes down to cultivating the right mentors who will guide you to the proper think-tank until your party returns to power), are no match for the stone-cold killers of the Kremlin, led by the Chekist-in-Chief Putin. They have grown up in a world where unipolar American power has never been challenged, and while they can utter pleasant, Davos-ready platitudes about the whole range of bien pensant issues – global warming, emerging trends in micro-finance, gender matters on the Subcontinent, et al – they have quite literally nothing to say when old-school conventional threats emerge and enemies – yes, enemies: not rivals or merely misunderstood would-be partners – emerge from the darkness with conquest and killing on their minds.

In the present-day West, it’s commonplace to have a laugh at Vladimir Putin’s weirdly macho (and more than a little homoerotic) posturings, and I’ve done it too – how not, among the panoply of martial arts, bears, and countless shirtless adventures before the cameras? Yet in Russia they love this stuff, without a laugh-track. They are not yet as post-modern as we are, and they find reassurance in an old-school leader who talks about – and more importantly demonstrates – strength in a dangerous world. The first decade of the post-Soviet era was an economic, political, and social catastrophe for Russia, and Putin, whatever his faults, has been a pleasant change in the eyes of most Russians, which is why they back him through thick and thin. The Putin era will end someday, probably with Russia more isolated from the world than ever, but that coda may be some difficult decades off.

In the meantime, Western leaders must find the strength to resist Russian aggression through deterrence. Credibility must come first, as without it all our nuclear warheads, conventional forces, and economic leverage mean little and will not impress. NATO can deter Putin’s misdeeds, far beyond Ukraine, but that will require reinvestment in collective defense, not just cheap talk and expensive conferences. European NATO members have become accustomed to American leadership and gap-filling at all times, but they need to confront the reality that they must do more, and soon. Across the West, we need leaders who understand the stakes now and how to prevent war through strength and cunning. As is always the case in war, cold or hot, we need to become a little bit like our enemy to deter him. If our leaders cannot do that, get new leaders – and soon, as this game is real and the stakes are high.

[The author’s comments are his alone and certainly not representative of any of his employers, past or present.]

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