Opinion: The West Barks As The Putin Caravan Moves On

For nearly two decades Russian President Vladimir Putin has challenged the West’s “rules-based international order” seemingly validated by the collapse of the Soviet Union, which Putin has called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

During that time, Western leaders have imposed economic sanctions on Russia, and diplomats have scolded Putin for his violation of human rights and the borders of his neighbors, illiberal policies and murders of political rivals, and ongoing attempts to restore the old Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.

But as recent events show, all that tough talk hasn’t slowed Putin down, and if anything has confirmed his contempt for a rich global rival unwilling to face the hard choices necessary for checking his aggression, even though, as the Associated Press said last week, the conflict is heading for a “potentially disastrous confrontation.” With oil prices rising significantly, easing the costs of economic sanctions; China and Iran increasing its cooperation with Russia; and a year of feckless global retreat and appeasement by the Biden administration––including cancelling Trump’s sanctions on the company building the Nordstream 2 pipeline for increasing Russian natural gas deliveries to Europe––Putin may now be calculating that the time is ripe for more aggressive actions to achieve his goal of pushing NATO from Russia’s borders, and restoring its geopolitical clout.

Most recently, Putin has intensified his ongoing pressure against eastern Ukraine by moving nearly 100,000 Russian troops to the border with Ukraine. He’s also sent paratroopers to Kazakhstan to prop up its president, a Putin lackey who is facing serious protests. Many of the protestors have been killed.

The actions against Ukraine are a continuation of aggression going back to the Obama Administration in 2014, when Putin seized Crimea from Ukraine, then invaded eastern Ukraine with “little green men,” Russian soldiers in unmarked green uniforms.

But having already signaled his eagerness for a “reset” of relations with Russia, indirectly promised Putin “flexibility” after the presidential election, and long committed to the foreign policy shibboleths of the “rules-based international order” such as multilateralism and diplomatic engagement, Obama responded to Putin’s aggression against Ukraine not with action, but with the arrogant condescension of a schoolmarm, asking rhetorically, “Does he recognize that Russia’s greatness does not depend on violating the territorial integrity and sovereignty of other countries?” As though Obama knew better than Putin and his millions of Russian supporters what comprises “Russia’s greatness.” 

Nor has the time-honored means for achieving “national greatness,” occupying territory and resources by force, been made passé by some Kantian, universal moral progress. Yet like Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry took the same patronizing tone: “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped-up pretext.” The only thing worse than an unwillingness to respond seriously to such aggression is to arrogantly chastise the aggressor, which only confirms his contempt for his adversary, and further emboldens his aggression.

Indeed, here we are, eight years later, and Russia’s designs on Ukraine are closer than ever to fulfillment, its demands more outrageous, and the West’s response even more useless. Recently, as the Wall Street Journal reports, “Russia has demanded that NATO commit never to include Ukraine or other new members, pull back forces from its east and roll back to its smaller, post-Cold War size.” Some consider these demands so outrageous and unlikely to be met, that Putin made them to manufacture a pretext for attacking Ukraine.

Like its response to earlier Russian aggression, NATO has sent more troops and materiel to eastern NATO members, and increased its presence in the Baltic States. Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg blustered, “If Putin’s intention was to get less NATO close to his border, he has achieved exactly the opposite. Every time he’s aggressive, he gets the opposite.” And Biden’s response? To threaten a Russia flush with cash from rising oil prices with economic sanctions after Putin invades Ukraine.

As for Russia, American Spectator online reports that on January 13, the “Russian ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Alexander Lukashevich, said, ‘Russia is a peace-loving country, but we do not need peace at any cost.’ He also reportedly warned of possible ‘catastrophic consequences.’” But knowing the West’s fetish for “diplomatic engagement,” he promised that Russia will be happy to continue talking, the aggressor’s traditional tactic for distracting the enemy and providing him an excuse for not taking politically risky action.

Stoltenberg’s tough talk, however, raises the question of what NATO, which is to say the U.S., will actually do if Putin does try conclusions with an invasion of Ukraine. This is the fundamental question that has bedeviled the “rules-based international order” since the Versailles settlement in 1919: What country will be willing to spend its peoples’ lives defending other peoples? And how does Putin’s machinations against Ukraine, 5600 miles away from us, harm the national interests and security of the American people enough to sacrifice lives and resources?

Obviously, distant conflicts can still harm a country with America’s global reach, and the argument that such events aren’t serious threats is often dangerous. As we witnessed last summer, making the case to the voters that distant foreign conflicts can damage our interests and security is difficult, especially when their minds seem to be already made up. Don’t forget, the enemy may have a metaphorical vote, but citizens have a real one they can use to punish leaders who displease them.

The iconic example of this bad habit of democracies to ignore or dismiss long-term threats and consequences comes from Britain’s disastrous negotiations with Hitler in September, 1938. After his second meeting with der Fuhrer, Neville Chamberlain commented during a broadcast to the people, “How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel  in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.”

Chamberlain’s comment––which pretty much describes the sentiments that many Americans held about the “endless war” in Afghanistan, and that prompted Biden’s disastrous withdrawal–– was meant to rationalize politically the feckless appeasement of Hitler’s assault on Czechoslovakia. And it was either a lie or a case of willful blindness, since the British leaders and people alike knew well enough Hitler, his followers, and the murderous malignity of Nazism. Finally, it also rationalized the failure of the government’s responsibility to protect its people from an existential threat to their security, and to explain and persuade them of the dangers of that threat and how they justified the use of military force, with all its exorbitant risks and unforeseen consequences, in order to counter them.

Needless to say, few Americans have any idea, or been told, exactly if, or how Ukraine––a “far-away people . . . of whom” most Americans “know nothing”–– is “worth the bones of a single” American soldier, to paraphrase Bismarck. Putin understands this political reality, graphically illustrated in the shameful skedaddle from Afghanistan, and no doubt it figures in his calculations about how far he can go without facing mind-concentrating force.

The diplomatic bluster and shuffling of NATO forces, then, raises the question of how will the West respond if Putin attacks Ukraine, which does not enjoy the fig-leaf of the NATO treaty’s Article 5––the provision that NATO will defend a fellow member-state if attacked––since Ukraine is not a member.

But even if it were, Article 5 is a “parchment barrier,” since it doesn’t explicitly require from members a declaration of war against the aggressor, or the mobilization of the member’s military. Joe Biden, during his shambolic press conference last week indirectly acknowledged this weakness of Article 5. Speaking about the lack of consensus among NATO members in regards to Ukraine, he observed, “There are differences in NATO as to what countries are willing to do depending on what happens — the degree to which they’re able to go.” In other words, honoring Article 5 is always hostage to each member state’s national interests.

Moreover, NATO’s expanded deployments that are supposed to deter Putin can’t hide the fact for all NATO’s recent modest increases in military spending and deployments of troops, NATO––despite including 5 of the 10 richest countries in the world––still does not spend nearly enough to create the military resources that could deter Putin, let alone go to war with him. This means the whole conversation is really about what the U.S. will do. And it’s doubtful that under a president from either party, the American people are going to support a shooting war with Russia, absent some clear-cut major attack.

Finally, the current crisis with Russia illustrates once again the dangerous delusions of the “rules-based international order” and its fetish of “diplomatic engagement,” “multilateral treaties,” and “transnational institutions,” all based on the idea that humanity has progressed and improved, making interstate violence an anomaly rather than an eternal condition of human relations.

But as Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin said, “Evil lies deeper in human beings than our social-physicians suppose . . . no social structure will eliminate evil . . . the human soul will remain as it always has been.” Human nature has not advanced that much over the last three millennia. The desire for power, resources, and prestige, the jealousy of honor and the thirst for revenge that motivate Vladimir Putin and many Russians, are as universal and constant among nations as they are among men, and force remains the eternal means of achieving those aims.

To think, then, leaders like Putin or Xi can be talked or bargained or bluffed out of what they perceive is their nations’ interests is sheer folly. They will be deterred or stopped only by war and its “awful arithmetic,” as Lincoln called it, the calculation that some people have to die now so more people don’t die later. The question for consensual governments and sovereign peoples has always been what will it take to make them accept that risk.

The truth is, war is not an anomaly or evidence of a failure to progress, but a sad constant and, as Plato wrote 2400 years ago, the natural condition of interstate relations. To think otherwise and to rely on non-lethal means of stopping war is to encourage the bold and violent, and the death and misery they leave in their wake.

The barking dogs of the “rules-based international order” are not going to stop Putin’s caravan of aggression.✪

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