Politics & Policy

Putin’s Intentions Aren’t What Matter

They’re not hard to divine, but our strategic vision shouldn’t depend on them anyway.

‘What matters is the intent. And we don’t have a sense of that.” That is what one of Washington’s legion of anonymous “senior government officials” told the Wall Street Journal about the Russian military forces now massing on Ukraine’s border — complemented, of course, by the tens of thousand more Russian troops stationed in what, until just a few days ago, used to be . . . Ukraine.

Clearly, our Beltway gurus have refined a bit of ancient wisdom: If you cannot remain silent and proceed to remove all doubt that you are a fool, at least remain anonymous.

Let us pretend for a moment that our senior official is right, and that Vladimir Putin’s intent, rather than America’s strategic perception, is “what matters.” Is the Kremlin’s intent really so shrouded in mystery that our $50-plus billion per year intelligence community doesn’t quite “have a sense” of it?

Putin has just annexed the Crimean Peninsula with virtual impunity, after promising not to do it even as his forces were moving into place to do it, and despite Russia’s prior guarantee of Ukraine’s territorial security. His military invasion and seizure comes in the wake of his 2008 invasion of Georgia and seizure of Abkhazia and South Ossetia — which followed security assurances similar to those Russia had given Ukraine.

In connection with both invasions, the United States and Western Europe vowed that there would be serious consequences but meekly accepted Russia’s aggression. In fact, during the Bush administration, after the United States publicly touted Ukraine and Georgia for NATO membership, the hand-wringing alliance stopped short of incorporating them.

Rest assured that Putin’s bare-chested romps do not include navel-gazing over what the West’s actions imply about its intent. He fully understood that NATO was unwilling to extend to these former Soviet satellites its security guarantee — viz., that an attack on any NATO country is considered an attack on all NATO countries that must be repelled as such. Coupled with Europe’s willingness — actually, anxiousness — to increase economic intercourse with and energy dependence on Russia even after the Georgian invasion, Putin grasped that he had a green light to indulge his revanchist ambitions.

Against this backdrop of recent history, Russia now has upwards of 50,000 troops in position for an invasion of heavily Russian sections of Eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin claims to be engaged in military exercises, under circumstances where there are many thousand more troops than training exercises would justify and where the “we’re just doing exercises” pretext is shopworn. Russia’s claim that it has no hostile designs on Eastern Ukraine echoes its false assurances regarding Crimea and Georgia. Moreover, as the Wall Street Journal report elaborates, the gathering Russian forces are making active efforts to conceal their positions and their equipment along the Ukrainian border. They are establishing supply lines that would be essential to an invasion and prolonged occupation.

So what do you suppose Putin’s intent might be? Sure is tough to get a sense of it, no?

Willful blindness to easily acquirable knowledge is standard operating procedure in Washington. When accountable national-security officials learn that important American interests are being threatened, the public expects them to take decisive action. Decisive action is politically risky. Often, politicians would rather not know.

When information is too available and too pellucid for them to feign ignorance, epistemological uncertainty about its significance is always a convenient fallback position. Let’s say a cop on the beat in a high-crime area in the dead of a summer night sees a man in a ski mask, screwdriver in hand, eying an apartment window. He would not be a cop for long if he turned his back because, after all, you never know what the masked man’s intent might be. But he would still qualify for a front-office job at the National Intelligence Directorate — perhaps analyzing “largely secular” organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood.

All that said, though, intent is not what matters in international affairs. The key is to have a strategic vision of the real world and our interests. That is the solid foundation for American foreign policy. If it were in place, there would be far fewer occasions to wonder about our adversaries’ intent. That problem is solved by having decided they are adversaries until proven otherwise; by treating them in that manner in every interaction; and by making clear to them that the wages of crossing us will be real and lasting. (Maybe someone could tell President Obama that Putin has joined the Tea Party — might do the trick.)

It is all well and good for House majority leader Eric Cantor, among other Republican leaders, to chide the president for designing policy around the Putin he hopefully imagines rather than the real Putin. This, however, is neither a new problem nor one that’s unique to Obama.

As I ruefully detailed back in 2008, the Bush administration delusionally regarded Russia as a “strategic partner,” notwithstanding Putin’s quite calculating strategic cooperation with Iran (you know, the “Death to America” guys) on nuclear-power development and ballistic-missile technology. Then, as I observed in late 2010, two years after the Georgia invasion, with Putin defiantly occupying Abkhazia and South Ossetia, GOP support for Obama’s wayward New START treaty with Russia was mustered by such foreign-engagement masterminds as former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice (architect of Bush’s strategic partnership with Russia) and Senator Richard Lugar (who in 2006 had partnered with then-senator Obama to disarm Ukraine). The treaty would not have been ratified without the familiar machinations of Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham — then on a respite between supporting Qaddafi against jihadists and supporting jihadists against Qaddafi. McCain and Graham strongly urged their colleagues to take up consideration of New START . . . then voted against it once its approval was assured.

Russia is on the march because it was treated like a friend while it acted like an enemy. As usual, the bipartisan transnational-progressive clerisy convinced itself that our adversaries, who thrive on instability, have an abiding interest in international stability — that they are best seen as trusted “partners” in the pursuit of American objectives rather than aggressors pursuing their own very different objectives.

As Putin menaces Ukraine, Obama prattles about international law. Even if this president’s sudden interest in faithful adherence to law could be taken seriously, the international arena is not a “community” sharing common legal norms and enforcement mechanisms. Aggressors are not presumed innocent such that we must sit idle until their intent can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. They are presumed hostile until they prove otherwise.

Today’s Russia is no Soviet Union, at least not yet. But it will grow stronger, and its behavior more provocative, until we devise economic, diplomatic, and defense policy on the assumption that it is an enemy. The longer we wait to “reset” in accordance with reality, the more painful the reckoning will be.

— Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute. He is the author, most recently, of Spring Fever: The Illusion of Islamic Democracy.


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