Much that comments upon Russia’s Crimean adventure is self-serving. Some moves are made to act as excuses to:
(1) Maintain the moral high ground while
(2) A costly response is avoided to prevent aggression by the powerful.
The comportment reveals that condemning past expansionism retroactively is easier than it is to confront contemporary imperial projects, such as one that is backed by Russian might. And how about China? As a result, fact-denying distortions appear as expert opinions that excuse inaction. These pronouncements might disperse what sounds good for the moment, but they fail as supports of a stable world order.
A delusion that helps to overlook new facts is that, after 1989, there has been a danger that earlier anti-Sovietism might mute into ritual Russia-bashing. This writer’s first essay in a daily and also his first in his native tongue, is a good example. “The Russians and Us” pleaded to prevent what seemed to be then a genuine threat. Historic resentments and recent occupation, it asked, should not become the basis of future policy. A renewed Russia should not be blamed for the past crimes committed in her name but without her approval. No security in Eurasia is possible without Russia’s support. Therefore, her proper treatment and the appreciation of her contribution to the new order appeared to be critical.
Indeed, much speaks for bending backward to accommodate Russia. Doing so intends to avoid that patriotic nationalism, that pseudo-racial identity, socialism-tainted communalism, religious belonging, hurt pride, and chauvinism that all merge into a foreign policy inspired by domestic resentments. The foregoing amalgam is sufficiently poisonous to pay a price to prevent its rise.
The events in the Crimea, as a follow up of the extension of the sphere of control at the cost of Georgia, affect the stated goal. Signals were strong and they bode peril to eastern Ukraine and Transnistria. Concurrently, the consequences of a leader that regards the collapse of the Soviet Empire as a geopolitical catastrophe are a hard-to-ignore writing on the wall. The contours become sharper in the light of the whisper of a leader unwilling to resist imperial spread. Asking Medvedev to tell Vladimir that, “after my election, I will be able to be more flexible”, is a conniving message. It advises to desist until more can be winked through. Ignoring the implication of such encouragements is difficult even for those that, for the sake of “peace” pretend to be the illiterates of politics. Translated, the state of affairs is; ”they are in trouble, you are in trouble, we are all in trouble”.
Sadly, this Russophile must admit that the data created by the Putin system has a hard-to-overlook message. It is that “well intentioned theory projected into the sky has been invalidated by painful facts created on the ground.”
Being friendly to a country and a culture should not commit you to sweep under the rug the threats that endanger the international procedural order. That important term indicates that changes in the system that regulates international relations should be made by adhering to agreed upon ways to bring it about. Putin’s Russia disrespects this mutually beneficial principle. This is intolerable to all. Oddly enough, it is potentially damaging even to Russia. Some of her borders can and will be challenged by relying on the precedent she has set.
This is a dangerous game – small gains for now, major losses in the future – a plot written to serve the moment’s demands. This tells that, even if feted as a great strategist, Putin plays chess with only the next move on his mind. An example of this short-term thinking is the support given to Jihadists whose local licensees begin to challenge Russia from within. Blocking US-led attempts to contain a global pest will, as a punishment for cold war victory, weaken America. At the same time, the grudge move means that Islamists are strengthened up to the point at which Russia will be promoted to become “the great Satan” once America is, as promised by Khrushchev, “buried”.
Now, we are “safely” waiting for the episode to come after the Crimea’s conquest. This punch to the chin is followed by meek “retaliation” that is directed to where it cannot not hurt much. The purpose is not to “provoke” Moscow. The approach demonstrates that propaganda outrage is followed by retreat, and a punishment that is limited by its intention not to “offend”. The consequence encourages further adventures. Given the precedence, any real retaliation in the future will be a surprise to Moscow. The scenario indicates that we have all failed to learn the lessons provided by the Nazis. The conclusion is that one lives dangerously if incursions are initially met by cowardice or by what appears to be submissive acceptance. Avoiding the risks that the backing up of one’s own red lines entails is the most dangerous long-term policy that can be imagined.
The excuses for backing away and responding to challenges by understatements might seem to be ingenious. However, for the West, the strategy brings with it the weakening of the next position to be defended. For Russia, the damage is that her easy successes become over-generalized. Loud talk about principles, followed by meek action intended not to radicalize her, does not reflect the fragile means of the “enemy” but his lack of resolve exhibited while he is painted into the corner. Concessions are a finite good and when they are belatedly terminated, the result can be a genuine confrontation that comes as a surprise.
Momentarily, the threat to an expansionist Russia is not US/Nato retaliation. The real hazard is that the strategy works too well. That means that the trick will be repeated, as is everything that pays high dividends for little input. Besides the contemptuously dismissed Atlantic world’s final and unexpected resistance, there lurks another peril. With the destabilization of the world’s procedural order, it could become Russia’s turn to be challenged. Stimulated by Russia’s arguments, behavior and success, other powers will choose to emulate, to Russia’s disadvantage, the strategy Moscow follows now. Playing with fire can burn your hands.