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Alarums and Excursions: Pundits, Putin and Crimea

By Fredric Smoler

Putin’s seizure of Crimea produced no agreement on the nature of a prudent response, but it did prompt a remarkable number of historical analogies and putative lessons. On the interventionist side analogies to Hitler were initially pretty common—some of the first, predictably enough, were to Munich, followed by a few to the Anschluss. These kicked off a round of post-Iraq scorn for analogies to the 1930s, which are nowadays widely abused as the obsessions of people for whom it is always 1938. This time the scorn was a little eerie, because parts of the analogy actually militated against intervention: in Crimea, as had been the case with both the Anschluss and the Sudetenland, the principle of self-determination argued against military intervention in defense of what was widely assumed to be a legal but unjust status quo. We’ll never know what percentage of the Crimean population supported annexation, for the plebiscite was taken under military occupation and threat of paramilitary violence. Still, relatively few people assumed union with Russia wouldn’t have won a majority in an honest poll.

It cannot be pleasant to echo Chamberlain, and insist that a just cause was marred only by rash and ugly means; it is surely more gratifying to note that Putin isn’t Hitler—after all, no-one suspects the man of meditating an Endlösung. Presumably because acquiescing in aggression as long as it doesn’t end in gas chambers seems an extreme version of defining deviance down, more prudent anti-alarmists prefer to note that whereas Hitler, having overturned the Versailles borders, seemed to come within an ace of conquering Europe, Putin will not be comparably situated on the strength of having seized the Crimea, and in any case Crimea was a limited goal, even an own goal, since Putin had at a stroke removed a couple of million Russophone voters from the previously more evenly divided electorate of Ukraine. The analogies to the ‘30s, despite the scorn they provoked, might have been presented by the anti-alarmists as examples of the proverbial curate’s egg: they were good in parts.

The anti-alarmist argument wore just a little bit thinner once Putin seemed on the verge of seizing the eastern half of Ukraine, then, perhaps, the Western half—that last by analogy the Czech rump in the wake of the Munich accords—and next, some people not unreasonably speculated, annexing the already-occupied Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. For the last few days, though, it has looked as if Putin may stop, having pocketed only Crimea, although his diplomats are now demanding the conversion of Ukraine into a weak federal state. If this diktat succeeds a sufficiently loose federal arrangement may serve as preface to annexation via plebiscite of the south and east, but then again, maybe not, in which case the alarmists will probably be rebuked for Russophobic hysteria. After all, even if Putin annexes the whole of Ukraine plus a few parts of other people’s countries in the Caucuses, he will not thus attain the military strength to roll over NATO.

So for any number of reasons, Putin’s not Hitler. Since the current rules governing respectable opinion-mongering oblige anyone making an analogy to the ‘30s to remind readers that the writer understands that Putin is not Hitler, such reassurance should henceforth be understood. Concealed within this admirably sane Putin-no-Hitler rule lurks one small oddity: people who insist that admitting Ukraine to NATO would have been and remains grossly provocative mean that Putin might respond to Ukrainian NATO membership with an invasion. On this view Putin cannot be deterred by the risk of war that successfully deterred both Stalin and Khrushchev from taking Berlin. A Putin willing to risk war with NATO to take Kiev, certain that his enemies will always back down, suggests not history’s generally cautious Stalin but the madly optimistic Hitler. People who think Putin can be deterred by a sufficiently strong response may not be the ones who are stuck in the ‘30s.

If Putin stops at Crimea, knocking all the analogies off the opinion pages, it will be hard to argue that he’ll have stopped because of anything the United States or NATO or the UN has done or threatened to do; he’ll have stopped only because he chose to stop. After all, when Putin massed forces on the borders of eastern Ukraine,
both ‘senior officials’ and the President speaking in his own name pointed out that the United States would under no circumstances fight to defend the independence of Ukraine. Promising to do nothing, come what may, is rarely the most effective form of deterrence.

So what could have restrained Putin? Surely not economic sanctions so feeble that even the statesmen imposing them felt compelled to apologize for their fecklessness within a day of announcing them. Did an emerging international consensus check him? Unlikely, for there's not even a consensus within the EU, or within NATO, or within any of the NATO member states. A lot of people actually seemed pleased to see the Americans so cowed that we would not even bluster with any real energy, and a prominent view among many commentators, more than a few of them American and British, was that having invaded Iraq and intervened in Kosovo we were necessarily barred from invoking either international law or any sort of moral argument at all. This view required refusing any self-serving attempts to distinguish between mass killings of Albanians in Kosovo[1], Saddam’s serial aggression and repression that had almost certainly killed more than a million followed by a decade-long violation of an armistice, and some Ukrainian demonstrators who hadn’t killed any Russians at all, but while this degree of intellectual purity, moral ferocity and (on the NATO side) fearless self-criticism no doubt gratified those who gave voice to it, it is unlikely to have deterred Putin.

Was it the UN, so venerated by those who decried previous American deprecation of its supreme and unique authority in legitimizing force? The Security Council dramatized only the supremely obvious fact that the UN is perfectly useless in checking the aggression of any power with a veto, which should make the five states now facing Chinese territorial threats and provocations take notice. A fair number of UN and EU enthusiasts have long deprecated absolutist notions of sovereignty, and it looks as if they have a point, since dictating revisions of one’s neighbors’ constitutional arrangements while deploying armored divisions on their borders is clearly not sovereignty as we have previously known it. So the precedent set by the UN was important insofar as it was potentially disastrous, and if an asserted right to annex territory inhabited by anyone speaking Russian prevails, it may soon matter that the Baltic states also contain a fair number of ethnic Russians. No fear, the anti-alarmists insist, the Baltics are in NATO, but some of the ones who so insist have also argued that allowing the Baltic states into NATO had been rash, as it had been rash to even contemplate letting Ukraine in, or looking like one might let Ukraine into the EU. In some quarters—and not just the Guardian opinion page—inviting Ukraine into a free trade area seemed the near-equivalent of inviting Ukraine into the Anti-Comintern Pact.

From the Ukrainian point of view it must seem hard to believe that anything could have been much more rash than staying out of NATO, but the anti-alarmists are remarkably quiet about the Ukrainian point of view. They do not seem to think that Ukraine, or Lithuania, or a few other UN member states, are truly sovereign—after all, they are so close to Russia. Proximity, it seems, is now to be nine tenths of the law, an attitude that may alarm Mexico and Canada, and should certainly alarm Lebanon, Qatar, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, etc., if the people articulating this doctrine decide it applies anywhere outside Eastern Europe. Anti-alarmists have begun to remember that the Russians not inaccurately called this area the near-abroad—19th century Europeans would have spoken instead about legitimate spheres of influence—and for people seeking a reason to do nothing there suddenly seemed to be something in the phrase. Seeing people who normally and even noisily expound an absolutist version of national sovereignty—at least when fulminating about the invasion of Iraq, or American or Israeli drone attacks—mutate into proud neo-realists admittedly has some comic value, but the merriment is off-set by the fact that following invasions and annexations cartography dictates that the 'near-abroad' will necessarily move west and south.

It will be interesting to see whether these new and remarkably phlegmatic realists begin to remember that much of Poland, and all of the Baltics, were also long part of the Russian state, and well within what it historically claimed as its sphere of influence. As for NATO, the neo-neo-realist non-alarmists, many of them recent exponents of the supremacy of law and the obsolescence of military power, might have recalled de Gaulle’s dictum that ‘treaties are like young girls—they last while they last’—but if they did, they neglected to quote it, perhaps for reasons of contemporary taste. Had they done so, they’d have had some pretty strong evidence, for if treaties, along with other international laws, are eternal and insuperable barriers, the Russians annexation of Crimea would not be widely described as irreversible.

If nothing we’ve done made Putin stop, what might one day lure him on, if not this year than the next? Restoring bits of the former Russian imperium and catering to irredentism have apparently been very popular, and little else about Putin’s rule has been strikingly successful. There used to be a shorthand phrase for that tactic of pandering to national chauvinism and a sense of unjust defeat and historical grievance that ex-Communist politicians discovered in the 1990s—it was called playing the red/brown card. The red/brown card is not always trump—Milošević‎ clearly played it a few times too often—but as long as it takes tricks there is a good chance the card will be played at need. Since we have made the tactic look flawless, it is hard to see why Putin should disdain to do thrice what he has done twice, and even harder to see why others similarly situated will not be tempted to do the same. After all, if a decaying, corrupt, largely incompetent and aging petro-state can get away with aggressive paleo-imperialism, why not men who feel history is suddenly on their side? It is probably not on Russia’s western border where the worst consequences may be felt, rather to her south and above all to her east, in territories Russia does not consider its near-abroad, but which states that believe themselves rising powers consider theirs.

People who long swore by international law made not only unconvincing but also apparently unconvinced neo-realists. Some of them insisted that while Ukraine’s recovery of Crimea was impossible, and the territorial integrity of what remained of Ukraine perhaps doubtful, military power was still obsolete—at least American power was—and although effective economic sanctions were pronounced impossible, or at least untimely, the value of international law somehow remained otherwise undiminished, for the same papers editorializing on the impossibility of recovering Crimea simultaneously editorialized about the international laws that inevitably doomed other injustices (e.g. Israeli settlements, the activities of the NSA, etc.). So law remained supreme, except where it wasn’t. Asserting the supremacy of law while disdaining all the means of its enforcement is a common but nonetheless strange pairing of beliefs. The insistence that the treaties creating and expanding NATO remain a real barrier to Russian expansion is an imperfectly persuasive argument, for NATO has given no unmistakable signs that it is preparing to honor its obligations to its own member states. Half a dozen F-16s look unlikely to tip the military calculus against the Russians, and an American President who despite serial breaches of lines incarnadine will not (however feebly) intervene against a weak state, even to interrupt the murder of 150,000 people, does not look an absolutely sure bet to risk Chicago for Kaunas.

None of this proves that the analogies to the 1930s may have some bite after all, and it would be particularly unfair to call the NATO states appeasers. After all, none of the historical appeasers insisted on arming Hitler after he’d annexed first Austria and then the Czech rump, but the $1.7 billion arms deal France made after the invasion of Georgia remains on track in the wake of the invasion of Crimea, as does the German provision of state of the art brigade level training facilities, and Britain has sold something like $600 million of military equipment to Russia since the 2008 invasion of Georgia. So this particular and much-heard analogy to the reviled appeasers really won’t do: after all, the appeasers vigorously rearmed through much of the ‘30s, while the NATO states continue to cut their military budgets.

Still, the anti-alarmists and neo-realists had some other arguments. After all, we surely need the Russians to pressure the Iranians to abandon the goal of nuclear weapons—if Paris was worth a mass, keeping Iran pre-nuclear is surely worth Simferopol. The problem is that Ukraine gave up 1500 nuclear weapons in return for guaranteed borders, and two decades later possessed neither the weapons nor the borders, and for a couple of weeks, at least, looked as if it might lose nationhood. Putin’s effortless seizure of Crimea means that any Iranian who proposed entrusting whatever are imagined to be the country’s vital interests to anything short of a nuclear arsenal now looks a fool, and soon South Koreans, Japanese, Saudis and maybe Taiwanese may react similarly.

If the consensus view on Crimea means anything, it means that breaking a treaty is no sure path to provoking effective American retaliation. Since Chinese intentions on its maritime frontiers are at best unclear, with the possibilities genuinely alarming, it would be very strange to assume that the Chinese are not watching events in and around Ukraine with great interest—after all, if NATO, of which the Americans are the heart, will not defend a European democracy from forcible annexations, how likely are we to defend reefs, rocks, islets—and in the long run, islands—much further away? Keeping ’em guessing has never been the safest policy, but giving possible adversaries good grounds to guess that the Americans are extremely unlikely to fight is less safe yet, in fact as unsafe as it gets, since it may not be true. While some wars are caused by powers unwittingly threatening their adversaries—this is part of the case against bolstering Ukraine—other wars were caused by powers who unwittingly conveyed a determination not to fight for something they would in fact fight for. The last century was unhappily rich in wars of that second sort—the list includes both World Wars, Korea, the first Iraq War, and the American role in the Yugoslav succession wars.

So one last coda to the use of historical analogies in the polemics over Crimea: it would be unjust to leave the impression that the alarmists have had anything like a monopoly on analogies to the Second World War, for some of the people who scorn the idea of in any way assisting Ukraine against a second Russian invasion, or of seriously attempting to reverse the first one, are also fond of such analogies. A few days ago the New York Times quoted one expert who shared the widespread certainty that there is nothing much to be done: "The Germans lost World War II in the Ukraine,” said George Friedman, chairman of Stratfor, a strategic risk analysis company. “You’re fighting on the Russian doorstep with limited resources in the place that’s been a graveyard of other military ambitions.” And had the Russians in fact lost World War II in the Ukraine, which they didn’t—Stalingrad was not in Ukraine, nor was Kursk, the graveyard of the last German offensive in the East, nor Minsk, the goal of the greatest and most crushing Allied offensive against Germany, nor Moscow, in front of which Germany probably lost its war in 1941—and had the Germans possessed our 5000 nuclear weapons, and if we omit the consideration that this time the Ukrainians would be on our side, as would, possibly, the Germans, and had anyone in fact been urging a war with Russia in Ukraine, Mr. Friedman’s historical lesson might have been invaluable. Unhappily, the Times has had plenty of company when ferreting out very feeble arguments to bolster the case that nothing at all can be done for the Ukrainians.

1 Editorial Note: This refers to the massacre by Serbian forces of 45 Kosovo Albanians in the village of Račak in central Kosovo, which was a major factor in NATO deciding to use force against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

From April, 2014

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