It is an immense pleasure to be able to commend the Obama administration on a foreign-policy issue, and so far, the handling of the Ukrainian crisis by the president, vice president, secretary of state, and National Security Advisor Susan Rice has been exemplary. They have taken from and expanded upon the Bill Clinton playbook of the eastward expansion of NATO following the implosion of the Soviet sphere of occupation and of the Soviet Union itself. President Clinton devised the Partnership for Peace, which had the semblance of a Clinton flimflam job, but covered adequately the admission of the former satellite states and the Baltic republics of the late USSR (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia), into NATO, while Russia and its former Asian and other republics were granted NATO observer status and generally treated as cordial new acquaintances of NATO, not the raison d’être of that alliance, which was just then reaping the harvest of the success of its 45-year containment strategy that laid the Soviet Union low.
The entire foreign policy of Russian president Vladimir Putin has been a pastiche of posturing and provocations: the bullying of Georgia, obstruction of efforts to deter Iran from achieving a nuclear capability, all his mischief in Syria, and his opportunistic colluding with the Chinese, militant Arabs, Latin American leftists, Iranians, even the Russians’ ancient Turkish foes, and anyone else who could be relied upon to irritate the West, and especially the United States. It has been a very inelegant and crudely improvised replication of the activities of previous leaders of important countries who felt under-recognized, of whom the most prominent in recent memory was French president Charles de Gaulle. But de Gaulle avoided direct military aggression, never forgot what he owed the “Anglo-Saxons” historically and for the assurance of France’s current security, and rallied instantly in the face of a real crisis, such as the U-2 fiasco in 1960 and the Cuban missile confrontation of 1962. Putin has set himself at the head of the nativists, the Russian traditional nationalists who are hostile to the West, a stance legitimized by some of Russia’s greatest cultural icons, including Leo Tolstoy (with his mythologization of the resistance to Napoleon, who would have modernized Russia and dispensed with serfdom in a stroke if he had been able to influence Russian public policy), and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who was not rallied to the virtues of the West by his asylum in the New England woods.
Almost all countries that are not altogether in the West, such as Russia, India, China, and even Turkey, have internecine frictions between West-emulators and nativists, and it has been politically convenient for Putin to disguise the thuggish and corrupt aspects of his regime behind an absurd personality cult of the rugged man of the vast and savage Russian wilderness, reinforced by an aggressive nationalism that rekindles Russian pride in the country’s status as a Great Power, which it has enjoyed since Peter the Great brought Russia forward into Europe at the end of the 17th century. These dramatic events in Ukraine ramify much more widely than on the progress of democracy in that country, and even than over the success of Putin’s chosen foreign-policy path. The administration, and Western leaders generally, have been careful and wise to avoid affronting Russian sensibilities (a solicitude that Russian leaders have rarely reciprocated, and certainly not the current one). We are witnessing the advance of Westernization to the very edge and fringe of Russia, and of the escalation of the struggle for the heart and mind of that stolid, but talented and unconquerable people, barely a generation after the same struggle was successfully concluded in respect of Germany. One assumes that these thoughts are in the minds of Washington policymakers, and it is to their credit that they do not speak publicly in these terms.