Spending the first three days of spring in snowy Moscow, especially after being in balmy Yalta and Sevastopol, is not my idea of fun.  It is useful, however, when you write on foreign affairs and there’s a first-rate crisis under way between “Putin’s Russia” and the West.  The overriding impression is that Moscow no longer perceives Washington and Brussels to be credible partners.  The key moment came on February 22, when the E.U.-brokered deal—signed on February 21—to ease Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych from power was swiftly turned into a regime-changing coup.  Vladimir Putin felt he was being brazenly cheated.  Having just persuaded Yanukovych to sign his de facto abdication—to agree to a major reduction in presidential powers and an early election—he was presented with what looked like yet another Western fait accompli.

Putin responded with the Crimean gambit.  Reuniting the peninsula with Russia is not much of a prize, however, if the rest of Ukraine is consolidated under the rule of Victoria Nuland’s handpicked favorite (Arseniy Yatsenyuk) and Western Ukrainian hard-core nationalists (Svoboda, Right Sector).  The Russian president seems to believe that no such consolidation is possible, which is why he has not sent Russian soldiers to Kharkov, Odessa, or Donetsk (although I understand that such a possibility was briefly considered in early March).  He will support those regions’ demands for constitutional changes that would turn Ukraine into a federal state with limited central-government powers, however.  His strategy for the months ahead is to let Ukraine’s new authorities make a mess of things.  There will be no E.U.-led bailout, primarily because Chancellor Angela Merkel will not allow it; German bailout fatigue applies even to the full-fledged member-states, such as Greece.  A billion from the United States here, and two or three from the European Union and the IMF there, will do little to improve Ukraine’s disastrous financial situation.  Painful austerity measures will be imposed on an already impoverished nation.  In addition, Kiev will have to pay regular market rates—once again—for Russian natural gas.  At the same time, the Crimea is being rapidly turned into a showcase of modest prosperity.  Pensions and public-sector salaries have already been doubled to bring them in line with the rest of Russia.  Major infrastructure-improvement projects, such as the bridge across the Kerch Strait, and assorted tax breaks will boost employment.  More importantly for Putin’s strategy, the Crimea will provide a constant reminder to Russian-speaking Southern and Eastern Ukraine that there is a better alternative to Maidan-style chronic instability.

There is one scenario, however, that could prompt Russian military intervention in Eastern Ukraine.  This might happen if NATO forces move toward Western Ukraine, or even to Ukraine’s border with Poland, as the usual suspects in Washington have demanded.  The consensus among my interlocutors in Moscow was that this is not what Putin wants, and that the West will refrain from that kind of escalation because the prudence of “Old Europe” will prevail over the adventurism of former Soviet satellites.  The crisis can and should be defused, they believe.  Putin has signaled his readiness to start talking to the new authorities in Kiev—their dubious legality notwithstanding—if they act to disarm the militias; agree to consider a new, federal constitutional framework; and accept military-political neutrality as the basis for Ukraine’s long-term strategy.

None of that will change the status of the Crimea as a republic in the Russian federation.  Even among Moscow’s Western-leaning liberals there is a grudging acceptance that a forceful response should have been anticipated.  It is noteworthy that Mikhail Gorbachev expressed his support for Putin in this crisis, no doubt remembering his own credulity when James Baker assured him that “there would be no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction one inch to the east.”

As Stephen F. Cohen noted in an excellent essay in The Nation on April 1, beginning with the Clinton administration, and supported by every subsequent Republican and Democratic president and Congress, the U.S.-led West has unrelentingly moved its military, political, and economic power ever closer to post-Soviet Russia:

Spearheaded by NATO’s eastward expansion, already encamped in the three former Soviet Baltic republics on Russia’s border—and now augmented by missile defense installations in neighboring states—this bipartisan, winner-take-all approach has come in various forms.


They include US-funded “democracy promotion” NGOs more deeply involved in Russia’s internal politics than foreign ones are permitted to be in our country; the 1999 bombing of Moscow’s Slav ally Serbia, forcibly detaching its historic province of Kosovo; a US military outpost in former Soviet Georgia (which, along with Ukraine, was one of Putin’s previously declared “red lines”), contributing to a brief proxy war in 2008; and, throughout, one-sided negotiations, called “selective cooperation,” which took concessions from the Kremlin without meaningful White House reciprocity and followed by broken American promises.

This list succinctly summarizes the new mood in Moscow.  As was obvious from Putin’s speech in the Kremlin on March 18, the contours of a new Russian security doctrine are in place.  Its pillars are “Russia’s historical heritage”—i.e., an active interest in the affairs of former Soviet republics—and an explicit rejection of the Western demand for the selective application of international legal norms.  Since you have set your own double standards in Kosovo, Iraq, Libya, he was effectively saying, I’ll set mine.  Putin’s red line is NATO.  My friend Oleg Bondarenko is certain that he will risk a major crisis rather than accept any further NATO expansion (or Western military bases) in the former Soviet republics: “Already the three Baltic republics were a bridge too far!”

The commentariat in Washington is still unaware of the new mood in Moscow.  Typical of their perspective is Zalmay Khalilzad’s March 21 article in The National Interest, in which he advocated the creation of an American-led coalition to support Ukraine:

The amount of military, economic, and political assistance the West provides should be determined, for now, by a strategy that enables a “Finland” option for Ukraine—one in which Kiev remains unified and independent, engages in extensive cooperation with the West, but does not pose a military threat to Russia.  The West should nonetheless preserve the option of bringing Ukraine closer to NATO if Russia proves unwilling to respect Ukrainian independence or wields the threat of force . . . Granting Georgia, for example, the NATO Membership Action Plan and accelerating the delivery weapons in the pipeline would underscore Western resolve.

This is a recipe for disaster, which would risk fresh escalations and occasional crises in a volatile region where no vital American interest is at stake.  This comes at a time when the ability of the United States to manage new challenges to her global position—primarily in the Far East—is open to doubt.  Putin believes that NATO expansion would present Russia with an existential threat.  According to commentator Valery Solovei, Putin also believes that “he is opposed in the West by the weakest political elite of the entire postwar period.”

In the long run the main danger to the security of the United States does not come from Russia, but from China.  Unwisely pursuing the geopolitical game of encircling Russia, successive administrations have contributed to the emergence of a de facto alliance of the Eurasian heartland, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.  Russia and China are not natural allies, and they may have divergent long-term interests in Central Asia, but they are increasingly on the same page when it comes to resisting U.S. hegemony.

In the early 1970’s Henry Kissinger wisely understood the benefits of an opening to Beijing as a means of pressuring Moscow on the Cold War’s central front.  Back then the Soviet Union was far more powerful than the People’s Republic.  Today, by contrast, China is much more economically and demographically powerful than Russia, and for the United States the optimal strategy would require being on good terms with the weaker party in the triangle.  It is unfortunate that we do not have a policymaker of Kissinger’s stature today, who would understand the potential a long-term understanding with Moscow might have as a tool of curtailing Chinese ambitions along the Pacific Rim.

Obama’s goal of “isolating Russia” will likely have the opposite effect.  Putin will be motivated to upgrade relations with China, possibly to the level of a full-fledged alliance.  Equally counterproductive are the administration’s heavy-handed warnings that China should not doubt the U.S. commitment to defend her Asian allies.  Daniel Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asia, declared on April 4 that Russia’s annexation of Crimea had heightened concerns among U.S. allies in the region about the possibility of Beijing using force to pursue its claims.  He predicted that the retaliatory sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States and the European Union would have a “chilling effect on anyone in China who might contemplate the Crimea annexation as a model.”

Such tactless statements will have a detrimental effect on the ability of U.S. diplomats to act with finesse amid the still-uncertain “pivot to Asia.”  China will not be intimidated, as we’ve seen with her pointed refusal to invite a Japanese naval squadron to the annual West Pacific fleet review, and in the months to come Russia can create serious difficulties in Iran, Syria, and Afghanistan.  Europe depends on Russian energy; no alternative sources can provide an adequate substitute for years to come.  Angela Merkel knows the score, which is why she rejected serious sanctions against Russia.  It is not in the interest of the United States to press Brussels on this point.  In any event the ineptitude of the technocrats in Brussels was largely to blame for the early stages of the Ukraine crisis, and they should deal with its aftermath.       


[image Winter Near Moscow © Aleksander Markin, CC-BY-SA-2.0]