Ukraine and the Crisis of the West

by The Editors
The U.S. must defeat Putin’s revanchism.

‘In a drop of rain can be seen all the colors of the rainbow.” This remark of the historian Lewis Namier is an all too apposite analysis of the current international crisis: Ukraine is the raindrop, and the colors of the rainbow are a spectrum of crises in Russia, Europe, the West (a.k.a. NATO), the U.S., and the American Right. The apparent stability of the post–Cold War world (1989–2014) has been shattered, along with its rules and conventions, by President Putin’s annexation of Crimea and subversion of Ukraine. We now live in a world determined by military force and economic competition. And it will take at least a decade to put Humpty Dumpty together again — if that is even possible.

Though Putin’s Russia seems at present to be the victor, as well as the instigator, of this world, Russia’s crisis is in fact the deepest and most toxic one. Russia’s government is an authoritarian kleptocracy that has failed to use the lavish energy revenues of the last 20 years to reform and diversify its economy. Its population is declining fast because, among other reasons, its life expectancy the past few decades fell, which itself can be traced to rampant alcoholism. It remains over-reliant on energy resources at a time when the world is moving gradually toward an energy glut. And its justifying ideology is a semi-czarist combination of Great Russian chauvinism and Orthodoxy.

Some Western conservatives, beset by political correctness, find that ideology attractive.  But it is largely a fraudulent one. Russia is a Chekist state owned by its intelligence services, which manipulate ideologies to suit the audience and occasion. And the appeal and longevity of the current ideology are dependent on continued successful expansion. That may well suit Putin’s book for the moment. His strategy is one of reconquering former Russian and/or Soviet possessions, bringing in ethnic Russians to offset the demographic decline, establishing a Eurasian Economic Union to bolster Russia’s economy, and, where his expansionary plans meet an obstacle, stirring up ethnic divisions to destabilize neighboring target states.

His problem is that this strategy is failing. Until a few months ago, he seemed to have conscripted Ukraine into his proposed Eurasian Union. Today, having lost Ukraine, he has chosen a second-best strategy of annexing Crimea and destabilizing Eastern Ukraine. His attempts to do the latter by sending in Russian forces in mufti to organize disruption and ethnic violence are an admission that the russophone Ukrainians failed to rise spontaneously against Kiev. So that is another failure of the strategy. To be sure, Putin still has a short-term tactical advantage in a region where Russia is the local superpower. But those shortsighted Western commentators who see him as the victor ignore several important facts: that Putin has lost most of Ukraine; that a Russian invasion and occupation of Ukraine outside Crimea is fraught with massive risks for Moscow; that other prospective members of his Eurasian Union, such as Kazakhstan, now show a marked reluctance to join; and that Russia is facing the serious threat not so much of sanctions as of a gradual Western economic decoupling from its needy economy. How long will an authoritarian kleptocracy remain popular as these trends play themselves out?   

Compared with Putin’s crisis, all the other crises are modest. The European Union and its supposed “imperialism” have been blamed by some Euroskeptics for triggering the entire Ukraine crisis. As Andrew Stuttaford (whose Euroskeptic credentials are beyond reproach) has pointed out, this is nonsense. Whatever its sins in other contexts (many and grievous), its role in Central and Eastern Europe in transforming post-Communist countries into market economies has been broadly beneficial. The European Union as a body had no imperialist desire to swallow Ukraine — that’s Kremlin propaganda impure and simple. Its most important members, notably France and Germany, are nervous of Eastern expansion; they were, if anything, relieved when President Yanukovych yielded to Moscow’s pressure and withdrew from the Euro-negotiations. It was ordinary Ukrainians who, seeing this as a capitulation to Moscow on political freedom as much as on trade, began the protest that led by degrees to the revolution in Kiev. And when those protests reached a crisis point, Poland’s Radek Sikorski, the EU leader most committed to the EU’s Eastern Partnership, advised the Kiev protesters to compromise with Yanukovuch to avoid bloodshed.

That said, the EU is unlikely to contribute significantly to solving the crisis because it is itself riven by crises. It is still grappling only half effectually with the Euro crisis; it has little money to spare for Ukraine or defense because Mediterranean Europe is draining it of funds; it is losing political support across the continent, as the May European elections will probably show; it is not a serious military organization even if it has ambitions in that area; and it is divided between those member states that want to resist Russian ambitions, mainly in Central and Eastern Europe, and those states — most of Western Europe but especially Germany — that place a higher value on expanding Russian trade. None of these crises are likely to be seriously tackled until after the May elections, if then, and so EU policy on Ukraine will be more or less paralyzed for the near term.

NATO is divided too — not between the U.S. and Europe. as so often in the past —  but on more complicated lines: the Franco-German-Italian central bloc, risk-averse and unwilling to spend more on defense, resists the more proactive approach of a bloc consisting of the U.S., the U.K., Central and Eastern European nations, and Nordic and Baltic states. The latter bloc seems prepared to consider bolder measures. Both in NATO and in the EU, Germany is the crucial swing player. If Berlin proves willing either to impose tough economic sanctions or to support the stationing of NATO troops in post-Communist NATO members, that would change Western policy and Putin’s calculations. But Germany’s political culture — a mix of commercialism, pacifism, realpolitik, and anti-Americanism — stands in the way of both courses. And the cautious Mrs. Merkel does not seem the person to break out of this psychological impasse.

This is a situation tailor-made for the kind of bold transforming American leadership that Truman and Reagan exercised in the 1940s and 1980s. Unfortunately, it is U.S. policy since 2009 — pivoting to Asia, downgrading U.S. interest in Central Europe, leaving the region to the EU and Germany to manage — that created the power vacuum there that Putin has boldly exploited. Since the crisis began, moreover, Washington has seemed schizophrenic, making bold assertions of principle about the sanctity of borders, etc., but proposing what are as yet only cautious responses and hinting that Kiev might have to concede ground to Russian demands for Ukrainian “federalism” (i.e., disintegration.) These contradictions may be diplomatic maneuvers aiming at the right result by a winding path. But they give little confidence to the Ukrainians and little anxiety to the Kremlin.

Unfortunately, American conservatives too are divided between those — notably Senators Cruz and McCain, in unlikely alliance — who favor a bold response to Russian adventurism and those who fear being drawn into a conflict with Russia that they consider remote from U.S. interests. This conflict, however, is one that will determine whether the West’s victory in the long-fought Cold War remains standing. So it should be firmly stated that anyone who thinks Ronald Reagan’s main historical achievement is not worth defending, even at some risk, cannot sensibly call himself a Reaganite.

America must therefore adopt a policy aimed at reviving the West’s self-confidence and defeating Putin’s ambitious revanchism even if it takes a long time to succeed. Such a policy would have two arms. Its military strategic arm would include such policies as reviving the placement of anti-missile installations in Poland and the Czech Republic; strengthening conventional deterrence by placing NATO infrastructure and personnel in Central and Eastern European countries and the Baltic states; and in general raising the potential costs of Russian military adventurism. The second arm would be to make it clear that the U.S. will accelerate the process whereby Europe gradually reduces its dependence on Russian energy supplies — and in addition to signal by current policy changes that this aim will be energetically pursued. As Wess Mitchell of the Center for European Policy Analysis recently told a Hudson Institute–Danube Institute conference on the Ukraine crisis: “An executive order by the president temporarily removing the Department of Energy from the LNG export-permit process, together with similar steps, would both improve access to capital for the completion of LNG terminals on both sides of the Atlantic and undermine the confidence of Russian oligarchs as to the sustainability of their long-term leverage.”

The crises afflicting Europe and America are largely self-inflicted; Putin’s crises are presented to him by history. He is dealing with them boldly and ruthlessly; we are hesitating and debating. If he wins, we will have given him the victory. And that won’t be our final defeat.