America must be wary, but aware of its limitations. This may not feel “just right,” but it’s realistic.
Since the end of the Cold War, America’s policy toward Russia has been shaped by two dangerous illusions.
The first was the conceit that with the right incentives, eyes-to-soul presidential connections and diplomatic reset buttons, Russia could become what we think of, in our cheerfully solipsistic way, as a “normal country” — at peace with the basic architecture of an American-led world order, invested in international norms and institutions, content with its borders and focused primarily on its GDP. Not the old Russian bear, and not an “Upper Volta with rockets” basket case, but a stable, solid-enough global citizen — Poland with an Asian hinterland, Italy with nukes.
The second illusion was the idea that with the Cold War over, we could treat Russia’s near abroad as a Western sphere of influence in the making — with NATO expanding ever eastward, traditional Russian satellites swinging into our orbit, and Moscow isolated or acquiescent. As went the Baltic States, in this theory, so eventually would go Ukraine and Georgia, until everything west and south of Russia was one military alliance, and its western neighbors were all folded into the European Union as well.
On the surface, these ideas were in tension: One was internationalist and the other neoconservative; one sought partnership with Russia and the other to effectively encircle it. But there was also a deep congruity, insofar as both assumed that limitations on Western influence had fallen away and that a post-Cold War program could advance smoothly whether the Russians decided to get with it or not.
Now both ideas should be abandoned. After Crimea, as Anne Applebaum wrote last week, it’s clear that Putin’s Russia “is not a flawed Western power” but “an anti-Western power with a different, darker vision of global politics.” It may not be America’s No. 1 geopolitical problem, as a certain former candidate for president suggested. (Don’t sleep on the Chinese.) But it is a geopolitical threat — a revisionist, norm-violating power — to a greater extent than any recent administration has been eager to accept.
At the same time, after Crimea there should also be fewer illusions about the West’s ability to dictate outcomes in Russia’s near abroad. Twice in this era — in Georgia in 2008 and now in Ukraine — Russian troops have crossed alleged red lines in conflicts with countries that felt they had some sort of Western protection: Ukraine through the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which supposedly guaranteed its territorial integrity, and Georgia because of our support for its potential entry into NATO. And in both cases, the limits of Western power have been laid bare — the disorganization and disunity of “European” foreign policy and the fact that even the most bellicose U.S. politicians aren’t ready to say that South Ossetia or Simferopol is worth the bones of a single U.S. Marine.
What’s needed, after these illusions, is a more realistic assessment of both Russian intentions (which are plainly more malign than the Obama administration wanted to believe) and Western leverage (which is more limited than Obama’s hawkish critics would like to think).
Such an assessment should yield a strategy intended to punish Putin, in the short and longer run, without creating new flash points in which the West ends up overstretched.
So yes, for today, to sanctions on Putin’s cronies and economic assistance for Ukraine. Yes, as well, to stepped-up cooperation with those former Soviet satellites — the Baltic states, the “Visegrad battle group” quartet of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia — with which we actually have binding commitments and mostly stable partners. Yes, in the long run, to a shift in U.S. energy policy that would use our exports to undercut Russia’s petro-power.
But no to sudden overcommitments that would give Putin exactly what his domestic propaganda effort needs — evidence of encirclement, justifications for aggression. Unless we expect an immediate Russian invasion of Estonia, for instance, we probably don’t need a sweeping NATO redeployment from Germany to the Baltics. Unless we’re prepared to escalate significantly over the fate of eastern Ukraine, we shouldn’t contemplate sending arms and military advisers to the unsteady government in Kiev. Unless we’re prepared to go to war for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, we shouldn’t fast-track Georgia’s NATO membership.
And unless the European Union wants to make its problems that much worse, its economic accord with Ukraine shouldn’t be a prelude to any kind of further integration.
The key here is balance — recognizing that Russia is weak and dangerous at once, that the West has been both too naive about Putin’s intentions and too incautious in its own commitments, and that a new containment need not require a new Cold War.
When illusions are shattered, it’s easy to become reckless, easy to hand-wring and retrench. What we need instead is realism: to use the powers we have, without pretending to have powers that we lack.
Ross Douthat’s column is distributed by the New York Times News Service.
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