Understanding the Syntax

by Andrew Stuttaford

Great powers do what great powers do (I’m sorry Mr. President, Russia is rather more than the “regional power” that you were — ludicrously — claiming the other day). Accepting that simple fact without panic, hysteria or bellicosity is a good starting point to deciding how to respond to Putin.

In a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, the Brookings Institution’s William Galston ran through some of the thinking that is driving Russia’s current assertiveness, correctly highlighting this passage from Putin’s recent speech on the Crimea, words that emphasize the way that Putin is driven by a sense of (outraged) Russian nationalism, that is, I believe, much more than a show put on for his people.

Mr. Putin proclaims the “shared history and pride” that links Crimea to Russia. “In people’s hearts and minds,” he says, “Crimea has always been an inseparable part of Russia.” He explains why—despite the Bolshevik crimes and blunders he enumerates—he regards the collapse of the Soviet Union as a catastrophe: “The Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders.” The Russian government, he says, “humbly accepted the situation” because the country was “going through such hard times then that realistically it was incapable of protecting its interests.”

To liberal-left supranationalists, such talk is dismayingly retrograde. Too bad for them: They have to live in a world that they have not yet remade.

As a reminder, Russia’s (independent) Levada Center now puts Putin’s domestic approval rating at around 80 percent.


From President Obama on down we hear the refrain that Vladimir Putin is on “the wrong side of history.” This is a classic progressive trope: History moves inexorably from worse to better, from darkness to light. When Mr. Putin resists the tide of history, he dooms himself to irrelevance and ultimate defeat. This kind of thinking was an illusion in March 1914. It remains an illusion in March 2014. Injured pride and its consequences will persist as long as does our species. The desire to dominate others is a permanent feature of the human condition. Laws and norms are no stronger than the will of those who enforce them against violators.


And count me skeptical as to whether sanctions of the sort that the U.S. and EU have either implemented or are discussing are either desirable or will prove effective. Worse, they may prove a distraction and alibi, giving the impression of meaningful action when in reality there has been none.

In the course of his recent interview with the Kyiv Post that I linked to here yesterday, James Sherr said this:

“This is not a soft power contest. War is a tool of policy, but it is also war, and as Clausewitz said, it has its own syntax.”

When he talked of “war,” James was referring to the situation in which Ukraine now finds itself. We ourselves are not at war with Russia, and nor will we be, but what we are in is a classic international shoving match of a type that also has its syntax. And it’s by no means clear that Obama, not to speak of lesser figures such as Sweden’s noisy Carl Bildt, forever “strongly condemning” this and “strongly condemning” that(while acting as foreign minister of a country that in 2012 saw its defense spending fall to 1.2 percent of GDP, the lowest of any Nordic and Baltic country) understand how that syntax operates.

On the other hand, The Economist’s Edward Lucas, early and prescient on the topic of Mr. Putin (and the author of a fascinating, disturbing and far-from-complimentary ebook ($0.99!) on Edward Snowden), does.

Here he is in European Voice:

The simple principle of [NATO’s] Article 5 – that an attack on one member of the alliance is an attack on all – is the ultimate deterrent. But being ultimate makes it vulnerable to pin-prick provocations: the sort of mischief and meddling we now see in eastern Ukraine. Would the United States really risk global thermonuclear war to stop Cossacks storming a provincial police station in eastern Latvia? The big danger for NATO, and the world, is that Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin reckons the answer to that is ‘No’ – and tries to bluff its way to another victory.

To avoid that, and all the dangerous miscalculations and potential accidents that might be involved (I am hearing worried speculation about how to handle a ‘Baltic Missile Crisis’ centring on the Swedish island of Gotland), the alliance needs to move swiftly and decisively to build up its presence in the region. Commendably, NATO has already drawn up contingency plans, and last year started on exercises. But the imbalance between threat and capability is still shocking.

Edward notes that the U.S. presence in NATO is primarily located in Western Europe, as are all of NATO’s major installations. This dates from the “three Nos” principle established when the alliance expanded eastward, namely that it has “no intentions, no plans, and no reason” to place significant military assets in the new NATO member states. Edward argues that Russia’s behavior has turned “No” into “Yes.”

He’s right. A measured relocation of NATO forces to the east is now clearly called for. Edward gives examples. I’d add one other thing, however: This shift must be accompanied by a commitment by those countries to boost their own military spending. NATO asks its members to commit to spending 2 percent of GDP on defense. At the time of writing, Britain, Greece, and Estonia are the only European members of NATO to meet that target (a mighty trio, but . . .)

Edward adds that NATO should play to the capabilities being developed in its new(ish) member states, such as the cyber-defense expertise developed in Estonia after that country was subjected to a massive cyber-attack from I-wonder-where in 2007. On top of that, he believes that “a coordinated squeeze on Russian intelligence activity across all EU and NATO countries is long overdue.” It’s hard to disagree with that.

He concludes:

I expect such moves to provoke howls of protest from Moscow. But showing weakness will be even more dangerous. Trying to soothe and pacify the Kremlin did not work before the attack on Ukraine. It is certainly not going to work now.