(Nantucket) In March it is possible to walk three or four miles along this island’s magnificent windswept beaches without encountering a single human being yet always in the presence of the awesome power of Nature in the form of the huge Winter surf that relentlessly pounds and reshapes these shores. It is an excellent circumstance to contemplate Eternal Questions or more immediate ones like “What explains Russian behavior and what should we do about it?”
Winston Churchill famously described Russia as a “Riddle inside a Mystery wrapped in an Enigma”. Judging by Western responses to the Ukrainian crisis we still haven’t figured the Russians out.
There are interesting parallels between the growth of Russia and the United States. Both started small and then expanded in all directions through a mix of exploration, conquest, and purchase. Like the United States Russia found a natural boundary in the Pacific Ocean but defining the Tsarist Empire’s western borders would prove more problematic owing to the presence in the neighborhood of other expansionist powers pushing in the opposite direction e.g. Turks, Austrians, Prussians, Poles and Swedes.
Peter the Great (1682-1725) – a particular hero of Vladimir Putin- was a committed “Westernizer” who by decisively defeating the then dominant Swedish Empire at Poltava (1709) firmly established Russia’s place as one of the Great Powers of Europe.
Peter’s most distinguished successor Catherine the Great (1762-1796) greatly expanded the Empire mainly at the expense of Poland and the Ottoman Turks. Her acquisitions included Ukraine- never an independent country in its own right- and in 1783 Crimea previously part of the Ottoman Empire.
Periodically Russia’s Westward Drive was checked by disastrous military defeats but always the country recovered, reclaimed what had been lost, and then some. Napoleon defeated and pushed the Tsar’s Empire Eastward but ultimately Russia’s Winter and huge army were decisive in the final overthrow of the French Emperor. In World War I Russia’s assault on Germany saved France and Britain from defeat but subsequently the staggering losses incurred by the Tsar’s armies led to Revolution and the birth of the Soviet Union.
Russian borders were again pushed eastward, but within a generation the immense might of Soviet armies did to Hitler what the Tsar’s armies had done to Napoleon. As a victorious Alexander I rode through the streets of Paris in 1815, Stalin would ride through the streets of Berlin in 1945. In that hour and for nearly half a century following Russia was not only the dominant power in Europe, but also rivalled the United States for World supremacy.
This Saga- Centuries in the making- is the Narrative that motivates Vladimir Putin: Russia can be initially defeated, is willing to suffer and sacrifice immensely, but in the end the “Motherland” will be victorious. This is why Putin- an unquestioned Russian Nationalist and Patriot- said and still believes that the fall of the Soviet Union was the “Greatest geopolitical Catastrophe of the Twentieth Century”. He further believes that it is his destiny- like Alexander and Stalin before him- to undo the “injustice and humiliation” that was inflicted on Russia by “foreign enemies” at the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. In particular he yearns to redeem the millions of Russian speakers who were his countrymen before 1991 and now- in his view- are persecuted in countries not of their choosing.
In the famous “Long Telegram” from Moscow (1947) the great American diplomat George Kennan proposed the strategy of “Containment” which became the successful basis of U.S. policy toward Russia throughout the Cold War. Kennan asserted that at the heart of Russian behavior was a “carefully calculated caution”. A similar insight was that of Stalin’s renowned biographer Isacc Deutscher who posited that the Soviet dictator’s success owed much to his mastery of “dosage” i.e. an ability to identify an opponent’s weaknesses and calculate with precision “when and where to push and just how hard”.
Putin’s behavior strongly validates the perceptions of both Kennan and Deutscher. Like the rest of the world he carefully noted the sustained pattern of indecision, bluff and weakness in recent American dealings with Egypt, Israel, Syria, and Iran. He also grasped Obama’s tendency to see talking as the equivalent of acting.
Putin’s choice of a target for his aggression was brilliantly calculated. Crimea is overwhelmingly ethnically and/or linguistically Russian, badly neglected by the chaotic and dubiously democratic Ukrainian government, the acknowledged locus of Russian naval power, and had actually been part of the Russian Empire for 208 of the last 231 years. While the U.S. and E.U. talked endlessly Putin acted decisively- bloodless coup swiftly followed by legislative and electoral affirmation (albeit a process fraught with intimidation). The Ukrainian decision to withdraw its forces from Crimea in hope of avoiding greater losses elsewhere finalized Putin’s “fait accompli”.
In the end the U.S. and E.U. are unable to make a moral, military, or historical case for serious intervention over Crimea. Putin with his domestic approval rating soaring can rest on his laurels, and happily engage the West in a leisurely game of “Sanctions Poker” knowing full well the geopolitical cards he holds (e.g. Syria, Iran, North Korea) will trump any feeble economic pressures a disunited West is likely to employ.
Longer term if the United States really wanted to get Putin’s attention we would unshackle the American economy led by its burgeoning Energy Giant and dramatically increase the Defense budget instead of crippling it as we are now doing. A confident Vladimir Putin is betting that the Obama he knows will do neither of those two things.
William Moloney’s columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Denver Post, and Human Events.