Politics & Policy

Putin on the Brink

The first and last thing to be said about the current Ukraine crisis is that it was designed and manufactured in Moscow. It is Vladimir Putin’s crisis. It is not Moscow’s response to some action by Kiev, or by the U.S., or by the European Union, or by something called “liberalism,” which seems to have replaced the CIA in some overheated ideological imaginations in Moscow and on the European far right. Ukraine would today be enjoying the shabby peace of economic stagnation and despair if the Russian president had not imposed sanctions on Ukraine’s agricultural produce and threatened wider measures unless President Yanukovych abandoned a modest free-trade deal with the European Union. His counteroffer to Ukraine of membership in a Moscow-led zollverein turned out, almost amusingly, to be an offer that Yanukovych couldn’t refuse. But he couldn’t accept it either, because ordinary Ukrainian citizens occupied the main square to protest against this sale of their country. And when Yanukovych fired on the crowd repeatedly, killing as many as 75 and injuring many others, he lost whatever democratic credentials he had enjoyed at the outset of the crisis. But he fired the shots as Putin’s lieutenant.

#ad#When Yanukovych fled, Putin lost the first round of the crisis. He immediately set about winning the second round. When the evils that many shrewd observers had predicted following the change of power failed to occur, Putin ensured their spontaneous appearance. The new parliamentary government failed to act brutally or crudely; Moscow denounced the “terrorists” in Kiev. Eastern Ukraine failed to rally to Yanukovych; the ousted leader, now a Russian pensioner, called on Russia to intervene militarily to save Ukraine, and relatively small bands of thugs seized a few government buildings. In Crimea, Moscow cast aside all pretense — well, not quite all; its soldiers wore no official insignia, as if they were, well, terrorists — and simply occupied the province, surrounding Ukrainian military installations, television stations, and the local parliament.

To the naked eye it may seem that Putin is winning this round hands down. We doubt that he thinks so. He has overreached twice, and the second gamble is still undecided. In most of Ukraine he is hated and opposed. It is a mark of his miscalculation that he had to create his own rebellion there rather than being able to take advantage of a genuine domestic resistance to the Kiev revolutionary regime. None of his present choices are ideal: To intervene further in Ukraine in order to threaten Kiev risks getting bogged down in a prolonged guerrilla war. To sit tight in Crimea illegally could — assuming the Western will — soon degenerate into an endless crisis between East and West at some unknown cost to Russia in trade and financial sanctions. And to withdraw under cover of diplomacy would be seen as a humiliation. The world’s resigned but quick acceptance of a lightning coup — for which he must have hoped — doesn’t seem to be in the cards.

Many otherwise sensible strategists are rushing to excuse Russia’s actions, in particular Putin’s seizure of Crimea. Its population is majority Russian, it is argued, and it was part of Russia as recently as 1954. Unfortunately for this argument, Europe (and the world) is full of disputed boundaries, but the general view among diplomats and lawyers is that any injustice these borders represent can be rectified only by agreement among the nations concerned. That view is shared by Russia in general. But it is clearly not the case here.

Putin’s seizure of Crimea breaks every international law in the book. More interestingly, it also violates the Budapest declaration of 1994, in which Russia was one of the signatory nations guaranteeing the independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine in return for Kiev’s surrender of nuclear weapons. The Budapest declaration is, so to speak, the Locarno Treaty of this crisis — Locarno being a treaty freely signed by Germany in the 1920s that Hitler violated in 1936 by militarizing the Rhineland, thus advertising his wider aggressive intentions. Putin’s violation of the Budapest declaration advertises his wider intentions, which are to challenge the outcome of the 1989 and 1991 velvet revolutions and to lay a speciously vague claim to Russian suzerainty over anywhere Russian interests and Russian-speaking people are under threat.

This specific violation poses a special problem for two groups. The first is the signatories of the Budapest declaration, which include the U.S. and Britain, because they are on record as guaranteeing Crimea’s status as part of Ukraine. Ukraine may not be a NATO member entitled to the protection of Article 5, but it has exactly the same claim on these two Western powers as if it were. They can’t simply shuffle off this crisis onto the U.N.; it is their direct responsibility. Any U.S. or U.K. statesman who fails to fulfill that obligation is hereafter forbidden to criticize Neville Chamberlain. The second group is those European theorists — notably Sir Robert Cooper, who argued the point capably and seriously a decade ago in The Breaking of Nations — who assert that Europe has moved into a postmodern Kantian world governed by a network of overlapping law rather than by power politics. For the moment, this crisis seems to be challenging those theories; but that may change. How the European Union responds to this crisis will tell us a great deal about the kind of international order that we will be living in as the 21st century unfolds.

If the ultimate direction of Putin’s foreign policy is indeed the reversal of 1989, then the West has an interest in ensuring that this particular episode ends in failure. That does not mean that the West should not respect Russia’s legitimate security and geopolitical rights. Not only should we do so, but it would be highly imprudent to do anything else. Yet it is hard to argue that Russia’s security and geopolitical rights are not being respected when it is the second-largest nuclear power, when it has modernized and capable conventional forces, when it is a veto-wielding permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and a member of most other international bodies, from the OSCE to the G8, when it sits at the negotiating table at almost every crisis-management going, and when its troops occupy several countries against their will.

At the same time, Russia must accept that its rights don’t include prohibiting other nations from exercising their rights and independence or forcing them to join organizations that principally reflect Russian interests. Russia has done this repeatedly in Georgia, Moldova, Armenia, and other areas of the “near abroad.” And the West’s allies in Central and Eastern Europe, which were governed by the Soviets in the Cold War only because of a hot war that the Soviet Union colluded in starting, are correct to complain that the U.S. has been neglectful and passive towards them. They need NATO and U.S. commitment even more as a result of the increased Russian threat that this crisis represents to them.

What all this implies is a legitimately two-faced policy. On the one hand, the West should raise the costs — diplomatic, economic, financial, military — to Moscow of its Ukraine/Crimea adventure while simultaneously ensuring that Ukraine receives the trade and financial help that it needs to survive and develop as a modern European power. Both of these are tall orders; neither is impossible; and while they are still being pursued, Putin is losing. On the other hand, we must make it clear, in public as well as private, that we would be happy to see a democratic Russia takes its place as a senior partner in the Euro-Atlantic institutions that still provide the world with its main leadership. The single condition for Russia’s entry is that it must surrender the neo-imperial mindset that still shapes Russian foreign policy. Retreating from its invasion of Ukraine would be an important step down that road. If the West can quietly assist Putin to withdraw without losing face, therefore, we should do so. But we are more likely to be assisting his successor when that moment comes.

The Editors — The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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