Politics & Policy

Dealing with Russia

Russian soldier outside a Ukrainian military base near Simferopol in Crimea.
A good Ukraine policy is also a good Russia policy.

It is probably too late for this administration, but surely there is a reawakening in the foreign-policy community of the United States about the need for some sort of focused strategic thinking and planning, and not just the random, feckless pursuit of some general policy ideals, such as pushing the “reset button” with Russia and imagining that the complete abolition of nuclear weapons is desirable and achievable. I wrote in this column two weeks ago that strategic events in Ukraine were unfolding satisfactorily, as the nativist gangster regime of Russia’s President Putin had been rebuffed in the former crown jewel of the Soviet Union, which had thus opted for the West over intimacy with an anti-Western Russia; and last week that Putin’s exploitation of irredentism in largely Russian Crimea would push the rest of Ukraine determinedly into the arms of the West.

#ad#My distinguished friend Joe Joffe, editor of Die Zeit, wrote in the Wall Street Journal on Monday that, in seizing Crimea, Putin was showing Machiavellian cunning in intimidating the Ukrainians without such an exercise of force as to arouse seriously the whole West. I don’t agree, because the Ukrainian claim on Crimea was tenuous anyway, dating only from 1954, and only 20 percent of Crimeans are ethnic Ukrainians. It is a very thin consolation prize for Putin to seize a small fraction of Ukraine after having, as he thought, wrenched the whole country away from Western Europe and into a suffocating bear-hug with Russia. It relieves Ukraine of what was sure to be, as many commentators have noted, a balky zone subject to temptation from Russia, as the Sudetenland was to Germany in 1938. The departure of Crimea will reduce the ethnic Russian population of the continuing Ukraine from 30 percent to about half that, and, in the nature of these disputes, fill the Ukrainians with an enhanced desire to cut the painter with Russia and animate Western Europe with an enhanced ambition to assist Ukraine into the West.

Given Putin’s unrealistic ambition to swagger in the world with the consequentiality of the old Russia or the Soviet Union, as if it had not in fact been cut down to the former European presence of the Grand Duchy of Muscovy of the Middle Ages, it was the best he could do. But he has effectively assured a powerful effort by Germany and its European coterie to bind Ukraine to Europe’s bosom with the proverbial hoops of steel. Germany, when acting in Europe in accord with a consensus, is invincible. Putin is a comparative mountebank at the head of a palsied state.

The passage of only a short time will reveal, as between Joe Joffe and me, which is correct; but I think Machiavelli would excoriate Putin for overplaying his hand, antagonizing forces more powerful than his own, and engaging in adventurism rather than strengthening his own country and his own position in it. (The reception given him at the profligate spectacle of the Sochi Olympics shows that he is far from a popular Machiavellian “Prince” set at the head of a grateful people, though so was the Borgia for whom the book was allegedly named.)

Apart from just dithering, there are two alternative Western approaches to the Ukraine crisis: accept the historic limitations imposed by the ancient intimacy between Russia and Ukraine, and settle for some sort of modified Finlandization of the country; or take as much of it as can be coherently integrated into the West and accept Russian suzerainty or outright absorption of the rest. The first option is more difficult, because Ukraine is much more complicated and more heavily infiltrated by Russians, and thus divided, than the relatively small, homogeneous, and well-governed Finland. The second option is conceptually easier, but does include a rollback of Russia from a pride of place it has held for many centuries. Russia may have had more ups and downs than most great nationalities, but it is a tenacious and ultimately unconquerable country (a claim only China and the United States can also make). My contention is that leaving Putin with most of the Russians in what has been Ukraine, even if Crimea has to be topped up as a Russian accretion with a shaggy edge in the Donetsk-Dnepropetrovsk region of East Ukraine, throws enough raw meat to the bear to quiet him, if Germany and Poland in particular vigorously encourage Ukraine’s cultural, political, and economic adherence to the West. Ukraine should not be invited into NATO at this point: Because it has such uncertain borders and institutions, it would be negligent to bring it into a regime in which an attack on one is an attack on all, even though NATO has been allowed to degenerate into an “alliance of the willing,” and Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia were admitted though they were Russian provinces for 200 years prior to World War I.


The objective is not permanently to antagonize Russia but to encourage its adherence to the West. We have tried the “reset button”; Bill Clinton tried it by replacing the Warsaw Pact with the Partnership for Peace. Every reasonable effort was made to placate Russia, along with some efforts that were not reasonable; and Putin has mistaken conciliation for weakness. It is not any lack of respect for Russia as a great and permanent nation that has led us to this point; it is, rather, George W. Bush’s vapid nonsense about “Vladimir’s” concern for his rosary when his dacha was on fire, and Obama’s indulgence of the Russian desire to retain a first-strike nuclear option against Western Europe, and Putin’s incitement of Iran’s nuclear development. Integrating most of Ukraine into the West will respond appropriately to Putin’s expansionism and encourage the Western emulators who are always present in Russia, from Peter the Great to Boris Yeltsin.

#ad#Having a strategic concept of the world requires a reasonable knowledge of history and geography, and may start from the position outlined by Richard Nixon when he explained to his allies his initiative to China in 1971. There were, he said, five areas geopolitically capable of influencing the world: the United States, Western Europe, Japan, China, and the Soviet Union. Western Europe and Japan were quite solid allies (though burden-sharing was frequently contentious), and he sought to neutralize China before seeking a durable understanding, from a strong post-Vietnam position, with the USSR. The Nixon-Kissinger policy succeeded magnificently, despite the Watergate lunacy and the aberrant Carter years. Of course, whatever Putin’s posturings, Russia cannot pretend to retain the power of the USSR, but it remains an important country. Japan and the United States and parts of Western Europe are not exactly what they were either, but nor have they ceased to be extremely important countries also. With as radically efficient management as China has had these 35 years, India could join that circle; perhaps in 30 years, so will Brazil, and eventually South Africa, a resurrected Iran or Turkey, Indonesia, or Canada (if its population expands sufficiently).

The United States, and the West generally, has no natural disagreement with any of these countries, as long as militant antagonism subsides, as it did with China, and even with Russia despite Putin’s histrionics, and as it must with Iran. As the world’s most important country, the United States has the responsibility to maintain good relations with the principal geopolitical entities, if possible, by a combination of incentives and deterrence, and to try to avoid international violence without appeasing its practitioners. As the West pursues a de facto partition of Ukraine that envelops a more homogeneous (but not ethnically cleansed) Ukraine into the West, it should reinforce anti-missile defenses and move the center of military gravity of the Western Alliance eastward into Poland, and should work to reduce West European dependence on Russian energy. But these actions should be accompanied by direct incentives to Russia to pursue its vocation as a Great Power in cooperation with the West, not by provoking and insulting us. Czar Alexander I refused to join the British boycott of the U.S. and helped James Monroe and James Madison and John Quincy Adams end the War of 1812. Under Alexander II, Russia sold Alaska to William H. Seward for only $7 million in 1867 (and thought it was getting a good deal); and Stalin took over 90 percent of the Allied casualties in subduing Nazi Germany. Nixon and Kissinger knew how to respond to Brezhnev’s provocations while conducting relations between their counties to the most productive point they had had for nearly 40 years. It can be done and the West certainly has the strength to do it; all that is needed is for the leaders of the West to be realistic and consistent.

— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, A Matter of Principle, and the recently published Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership. He can be reached at cbletters@gmail.com.

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