Not since the Cold War has Red Square hosted such an alarming spectacle. When Russian president Vladimir Putin gathered a crowd of thousands to celebrate his military annexation of Crimea last week, he demonstrated a now-familiar talent for merging stagecraft with statecraft. Flanked by four Jumbotrons and capped by the dubious proclamation “We are together,” Putin’s victory lap after his Crimea success was a calculated display of bravado. Its immediate aim was to lend the illusion of finality to Russia’s brazen land grab. Yet one element of the performance was real — and final — as it brought an undeniable end to President Barack Obama’s vaunted rapprochement with the Kremlin. Some foreign-policy ideas die a quiet death in obscurity. Putin ensured that the White House’s signature Russian “reset” died very publicly, on live television.
This was almost certainly not what the president had expected when he dispatched a “secret letter” to Moscow during his very first weeks in office in 2009. In that note, Obama offered to squelch the Bush administration’s missile-defense plans in Europe in exchange for Russian help on Iran. This was the origin of the reset, and it was the first in a series of misplaced assumptions and false hunches that met an ignominious end last week at the walls of the Kremlin.
The first and most basic error among the White House’s judgments was that history had ended in Europe, or at least that as a geostrategic theater the region would remain quiet. The second misfire was to assume that if troubles did arise, Europe could quell any dustups along its periphery. The third mistake was to prioritize grand bargains with large powers like Russia, even at the cost of neglecting traditional allies like the United Kingdom or vibrant ones like Poland. The fourth and most dangerous misread was that the Kremlin was willing to act as a responsible international partner. Whatever the flaws of Putin’s Russia, the White House clung to the belief that at least it was a country with which the United States could do business.
What is remarkable about the recent Crimea crisis is that it revealed just how many calls the White House got wrong. The eastern edge of Europe is not a dormant strategic fault line but one of the world’s most active. The EU is underprepared for the full-contact geopolitical competition that now predominates beyond its borders. Agreements with Putin are at best dubious propositions. And he is a revisionist leader of the first magnitude. Indeed, Putin’s Crimean adventure is not a simple snatch and grab. It is rather part of a systematic effort to undo the post-1989 settlement of Europe. The consequences for the United States are profound.
Over the course of a single weekend in Crimea, Russia ruptured a framework of historic agreements that have guaranteed peace in Europe for two decades. In the case of Ukraine, these included the Budapest Memorandum (1994), U.N. Document A/49/765 (1994), the NATO-Russia Founding Act (1997), and the Russo-Ukrainian treaty (1997). They affirmed Russia’s pledge to never invade Ukraine’s territory, alter its borders, or challenge its independence through force of arms. Collectively, these promises facilitated Ukraine’s surrender of its nuclear arsenal, NATO’s eventual expansion eastward, and one of the longest stretches of unthreatened tranquility in Europe since the French Revolution.
Worse than a broken promise, Putin’s seizure of Crimea marks the second time in half a decade that Russia has redrawn the map of Europe. The brief but bloody invasion of Georgia in 2008 was the first example of Moscow’s revisionist strategy at work. Ukraine represents a second. The dangerous question that now presents itself to the United States and NATO is: Where and when will there be a third? The attempt to answer this can yield insight into how America should respond to the current crisis and what steps it might take to prevent a future one. Unfortunately, the administration is currently ill prepared for the task.