We use the plural advisedly. Everyone with a dog in this fight is, and has been, plotting ever since Ukraine gained its independence (yet again) on August 24, 1991. It marks a time when the old Soviet Union was in total collapse and when all of the former Soviet Republics and the six Warsaw Pact countries in the West collectively made an absolutely historic dash to freedom. To plot in this part of the world has been a national pastime for centuries on end.
To understand who is plotting what let’s re-examine where we are, and how we got to this point. First, we would be enmeshed in the current crisis (yes, it is a crisis) regardless of who was President of the United States. This is not a crisis of Obama’s making, or, really not entirely of Putin’s making. What is happening today in Ukraine is remarkably consistent with a 1,000-year sweep of history, and no one (in either political party) sitting in Foggy Bottom or at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue would have been able, over the long run, to greatly influence, let alone determine, the outcome of the events unfolding before us.
Perhaps, the simplest way to focus our thinking is to understand the very meaning of the name “Ukraine.” It literally means “borderland.” And there have been few borders in history more important than that which Ukraine has, for hundreds of years, represented to Russia.
We will not get mired down in the long (and bloody) 1000+ year history of Ukraine. Let us just note that Tatars, Poles, Lithuanians, Russians, Turks, Swedes and Cossacks systematically and sequentially ravaged Ukraine. Ukraine was incorporated into Tsarist Russia in 1667, the year the Dutch traded hegemony over New York and New Jersey to England for Suriname (talk about a bad trade).
Ukraine has been the essential border between the vast European east (Russia) and the rest of Europe. Ukraine coupled with the Baltics and the Central European countries that comprised the old Warsaw Pact, is what kept American-allied Europe at arms length from the heart of Russia. Ukraine has, for most of history, been the heart of the buffer that Russia has depended upon for protection.
Mikhail Gorbachev opened the door to the west to let fresh ideas in, and his successor, Boris Yeltsin, left the door open and nothing has been the same since. That’s because freedom is an idea that expands the mind and excites the senses like no other. Suddenly, Ukraine, the Baltic’s and the old Warsaw Pact countries turned west, leaving Yeltsin’s successors with an aging, shrinking, bufferless nation to govern.
Enter Vladimir Putin.
Putin came of age as a top KGB operative when that buffer, so essential to Russia’s history and security from the time of the Tsars, provided 775,000 square miles and tens of millions of people between Western Europe and Moscow. Suddenly, that buffer had (in the eyes of Putin) been frittered away by the likes of Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Nations of paupers were suddenly enjoying the promise of western prosperity.
Ukraine is also, in many respects, the cradle of Russian achievement boasting Tchaikovsky, Wozniak, Sikorsky, Warhol, Golda Meir, Wayne Gretsky, Armand Hammer, Bob Dylan, Herb Alpert, Leonid Brezhnev and endless pages more. Its loss has been the bitterest of pills for the Kremlin to swallow.
Mikhail Gorbachev, when asked a few years after the Berlin Wall came down, what ended the Cold War, he answered in three words. “Reagan at Reykjavik.” Every American President since Ronald Reagan has nudged and nursed (and, yes plotted) these newly freed nations toward the West. They have affiliated enthusiastically with the EU and most have joined the Nato defense pact. Once the Iron Curtain was lifted, and the Berlin Wall came down the nations that once constituted the old Russian defense buffer had effectively turned their backs on the East, and were welcomed and ushered into the EU and into Nato.
Enter Barack Obama.
President Obama, like President Bush before him, believed he could do business with Vladimir Putin. Neither Bush nor Obama were entirely wrong, but nor were they entirely right. Ultimately, every nation does what it perceives to be in its best interest. Russia has certainly been willing to do business with the West and it has profited handsomely as trade (primarily oil and gas as an export) accelerated, and the stress of nuclear and conventional defense readiness diminished.
Nonetheless, Russia’s Western flank had receded to within a couple hundred miles of Moscow and that, in Putin’s calculus, had to be addressed whenever the opportunity presented itself.
President Obama’s leadership from behind in the Middle East and his disengagement from Europe has presented just such an opportunity, and it is apparent to our old allies and, as it turns out, our old nemesis as well. Since presenting President Putin with our symbolic (but mangled) Reset Button the US has sent a number of inopportune signals. We removed (as distinct from rotating) 10,000 US troops from Europe. For the first time since the end of the Second World War we have no tanks available in Europe except for a few that are maintained for training in Germany. Our navy is now the smallest since before World War Two and our Air Force is the smallest ever. Concurrently, our European Allies have also decreased defense spending by 15% while Russia has increased its defense spending by 31% in the past five years. All Nato members are supposed to commit 2% of their GDP to defense. Only the US, UK, Greece and Estonia do that. The remaining 24 Nato members do not.
American foreign policy seems terribly out of sync with the pressures and dangers that lurk both in the Middle East and in Central and Eastern Europe. We are disengaging at the very time Russia seems to be re-engaging.
Putin has every reason to assume that America won’t confront Russia militarily. After all, we’ve publicly announced that there will be no military option to the Ukrainian crisis. That’s rather like pouring blood in shark-infested water. Putin, no doubt, sees an opportunity to bolster the eastern buffer it lost. Seventy-seven percent of Ukraine’s population is Ukrainian, but between 15 and 20 percent is Russian. While two thirds of the population speak Ukrainian, a third speak Russian. Many, if not most, of the Russian speaking Ukrainians have family in Russia. Only the Ukrainians in the East look to the West.
We do not fault President Obama for eschewing the use of military force in Central or Eastern Europe. Bluffing would be both ill advised and dangerous. We are not going to fight in Europe and everyone knows it. America and its European allies do, however, have the capacity to inflict serious pain on the Russian economy and everyone knows that too.
If our allies and we signal that we aren’t going to really do that either, than the temptation we dangle before Putin may be irresistible. Over the long haul, America and Europe can inflict crippling sanctions on Russia. In the short term, however, Russia can make life in Western Europe pretty miserable. Russia can easily ravage the Ukrainian economy and materially curtail much needed economic growth in Europe.
The Russian economy, however, is ill equipped to take a serious hit, and that reality should inform the West’s strategy. Whether our European allies and we are willing to play economic hardball remains to be seen. If we are, Russia will almost have to back off. If we are not, tensions will most assuredly escalate for the foreseeable future. A new cold war is not likely. A prolonged and very uncomfortable chill, however, is.