After ducking the subject for two weeks and grasping at improbable straws, I bow to the inevitable and return to the Ukraine crisis. Everyone with the slightest insight into Eastern European or Russian history saw this problem coming. No full-blooded Russian, not Alexander Solzhenitsyn or any other dissident, has ever conceded for a minute Ukraine’s right to continue indefinitely as an independent country. A complicated and often infelicitous combination of Lithuanians, Poles, Tatars, and Russians, Ukraine rebelled against the Poles and adhered, semi-voluntarily, to Russia when, in 1795, that power and the Austrian Empire and Prussia joined in the division and elimination of Poland as an independent state. Nearly 200 years of Russian occupation and dominance followed, punctuated by the French and two German invasions of Russia, Stalin’s liquidation of the independent farmers, Hitler’s genocide against the Ukrainian Jews (who were 10 percent of the population), and various purges and assorted other atrocities of both those psychopathic monsters.
All of the 15 constituent republics of the Soviet Union seceded from the USSR in 1990 and 1991, including Russia itself, and none has so far remerged with Russia, though Belarus is very expressly under Russian influence, Georgia has been intimidated by a military intervention in two provinces of that country, a couple of the Asian republics have been infiltrated to some extent, and the status of Moldova is unclear. When Vladimir Putin set out to rebuild the status of Russia in the world, he certainly targeted many of the former republics as the place to start. Even if, as seems to be the case, he regards China and the East and the Muslim countries to the southeast and south as Russia’s natural opponents, Putin has always implied that he does not accept the durability of the arrangements with the West that included the complete independence of the former western, Baltic, and Caucasus components of the USSR. Although Putin squashed the complete independence of Georgia in the last days of the administration of George W. Bush, there could be no real question of Russia’s becoming too assertive in these matters until the Obama administration became well entrenched with its policy of almost unlimited appeasement, unilateral disarmament, and abdication of leadership of the Western alliance. The infamous “reset” of relations with Russia was followed by the unilateral scale-back of the European missile-defense system, to ensure that Putin retained his first-strike capacity against the European allies of the U.S., most of whom had gone through the Cold War and its immediate aftermath in the front lines and in lockstep with eleven consecutive American administrations.
Putin can be pardoned for believing that the absolute shambles of the Syrian misadventure, in which Obama drew his red line on Assad’s gassing of fellow Syrians, surrendered the role of commander-in-chief to the Congress, scaled back his promised punitive expedition, and then staved off congressional defeat by handing the entire task of securing voluntary surrender of the Assad regime’s sarin gas to Putin, has given the Kremlin a green light to do what it wants.
The same message has been generally conveyed by the ineffectual posturing over the Iranian nuclear program, which the Russians will probably live to regret having supported. Putin and Medvedev, his chief subordinate, presumably thought they were complicating the lives of the Americans by making the achievement of their promised prevention of the Iranian nuclear capability more difficult. The United States has effectively conceded the issue, and Russia will have to deal with a Middle East bristling with nuclear weapons, probably including Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia as well as Iran, Pakistan, and Israel. In this as in other contemporary matters, we are seeing the full play of the law of unintended consequences.
And it must be said that the United States is not alone among major countries in making hollow promises of retribution in recent times. Germany, which is fundamentally the strongest country in Europe, as it has been since Bismarck’s time, has allowed its armed forces virtually to evaporate. The German army, which invaded France with 3,000 tanks in 1940 and crushed that country in six weeks, now has no tanks. The capable Chancellor Merkel has talked a good line on this matter, as someone who was brought up as a practicing Lutheran under the jackboot of the Red Army in East Germany. She has no love of nor illusions about the Russians, but she has allowed German military strength to atrophy. The Poles and Canadians are putting on a better performance, and Canada has even promised to send six CF-18’s to Ukraine, but militarily, Canada has descended to the level of a paper tiger cub. The Poles are a bit stronger and can always be counted on to treat the Russians with skepticism, but Poland certainly cannot, by itself, see off even Putin’s truncated Russia.